Fiction into Film: The Running Man (1982 / 1987)

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

I grew up reading Stephen King. Many of you surely did as well. I’d blitz through an entire novel in a weekend, or a night. Hundreds of pages flying by like a few dozen. I liked them without loving them. Many of you surely did as well.

King is a fascinating writer, if not an especially good one. He’s arguably the ultimate publishing success story. He’s prolific, he’s rich, he has studios scrambling for the rights to his work before he’s even started writing it. Other writers either admire him or are jealous of him. I’m not sure there’s anything in between.

He fascinates me for two related reasons. Firstly, he’s an unstoppable fount of incredible, fertile, resonant ideas. A rabid dog attacks people trapped in their car. An alcoholic in the throes of cabin fever becomes a danger to his family. A mentally unsound fan holds her favorite author captive. These are writing prompts that could spawn thousands of works of fiction, and any one of them could be great. King turned each of these and so many more into enduring favorites. That’s amazing.

Secondly, though, he doesn’t seem to know what’s good about his own work.

This is remarkable to me. I find it difficult to accept the fact that somebody could be so successful an artist for so long and not understand his own strengths and weaknesses, but here we are. And so great moments are buried within meandering, tedious, clumsy passages. Fantastic characters jostle for space with unnecessary, functionless ones. Surprising flashes of human insight are diluted by clunky dialogue (often written in poorly considered dialect) that even when he was young seemed to have been written by an old man with an understanding of young people that was at least 20 years out of date.

The most visible example of this is his reaction to 1980’s The Shining. King was unquestionably blessed to have his not-all-that-great novel turned into what is arguably the finest horror film ever made. By Stanley Kubrick, one of the finest director’s we’ve ever had. Starring Jack Nicholson, one of the finest actors who’s ever lived.

Writers would sell their soul for an adaptation like that…one which improves upon the source material and enhances its legacy. But King felt ill-served by it and believed that it did his novel an injustice. In 1997, 20 years after the publication of The Shining, King got the chance to prove to his fans that Kubrick had gypped them.

He made his own adaptation of the book, a three-part miniseries, a six-hour epic directed by Mick Garris, whose Critters 2 and Psycho IV credentials evidently impressed him in a way that Kubrick’s filmography did not. And King absolutely made sure to set his version of the film apart from Kubrick’s in one key way: it was fucking terrible.

The arresting, immortal, chilling imagery Kubrick brought to The Shining left King cold, apparently, because it didn’t have poorly rendered topiary monsters and a cameo from King himself conducting an orchestra of ghouls. All King ended up proving was that he was the last person who should be given the final word on his own adaptations. He produces good material, but a smart director will trim an awful lot to find it, and rework even more to elevate it.

All of this is to recognize that King’s been largely served by solid adaptations. Not uniformly, no, but they tend to find the germ of King’s idea and present it in a way superior to the original, clumsy text.

I first read The Running Man in my late teens, and I learned there was already a film version soon after that. I tracked down a copy and rented it, looking forward to what I knew had the potential to be a great film.

It wasn’t.

Oh my Lord was it not.

King’s The Running Man was published under the name Richard Bachman, his pseudonym for a brief period. During that time King wrote one of his best novels (The Long Walk) and several of his worst.

The Running Man was…okay. It might be the only Bachman book that I’d position between those two extremes. Even as a teenager who shouldn’t have known better, I could tell it wasn’t living up to its own potential. I found it difficult to put down, don’t get me wrong, but it was a potboiler. An effective one, for sure, but also one that relied on moving the reader along quickly so that he or she wouldn’t have enough time to realize the novel wasn’t very good.

Its central concept, though, was great, and a half-decent adaptation could do a lot with it.

A half-decent adaptation was miles away from what we actually got.

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as King’s hero, Ben Richards, but the connection between the two incarnations of the character doesn’t run much deeper than the name. The novel version is a desperate, unemployed everyman with a dying infant daughter who volunteers to participate in a game that will see him hunted and almost certainly killed, because every hour he survives means more money for his family.

The film version, by contrast, is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

We’ll get into the massive differences in the two versions of the story shortly, but, right now, I will say I understand the temptation — on the part of the director, the studio, the marketing team — to eschew the original plot entirely once they realized they had Schwarzenegger, reshaping it as a mindless, self-contained action spectacle.

At this stage in his career, Schwarzenegger had starred in two Conan movies, Commando, and The Terminator. Predator was released the same year as The Running Man. Schwarzenegger was fast becoming a star, and he was becoming a star for very specific things. To plug him into a movie in which he didn’t get to do those very specific things was to invite commercial failure.

The changes to the source material are severe to the point of almost complete detachment. Instead of a gripping story of a man surviving — barely — by his wiles as a team of skilled hunters pursues him relentlessly, we get Schwarzenegger working his way through an uninspired video game boss rush. The question King posits is something along the lines of, “How far can a man push himself when his family’s future is on the line?” Director Paul Michael Glaser’s question is more like, “Can the guy famous for beating people up beat some people up?”

It’s tempting to say that Schwarzenegger is miscast, and had anything beyond the title survived the process of adaptation that would certainly be the case. But the film version of The Running Man fails to do anything noteworthy with its star anyway. It was reimagined as something else that didn’t work.

Both versions of the story take place in a dystopian vision of the future. The novel puts the year at 2025, and the film rolls it back for no real reason to 2019. At the center of each is a television program called The Running Man, which is the most popular show on the planet.

That’s about where the overlap ends, and even though the Running Man TV show exists in both realities, they’re completely different.

King’s version is just one of many shows produced by the Games Network, a government-sanctioned entertainment outlet that puts voluntary contestants in dangerous situations for potential profit. King alludes to similar TV shows such as Run for Your Guns, Dig Your Grave, Swim the Crocodiles and How Hot Can You Take It, but the biggest payout is earned through The Running Man.

The Running Man is a game show, but isn’t quite presented like one. It takes the form of a nationwide manhunt, with the contestants trying to stay ahead of a group of mercenaries known as the Hunters, led by a man named Evan McCone.

The contestant’s family is given an advance, and the contestant himself gets a 12-hour head start. He can go wherever he likes and do whatever he likes, and every hour he survives nets his family 100 New Bucks (because this is The Future), but the Hunters are always in pursuit and will kill him if they find him. Viewers can play along at home by sending tips to the Network if they see the contestant, earning them some money as well. The contestant earns bonuses for every agent of law enforcement he takes out, and surviving a full 30 days means he wins and goes home with the grand prize of one billion New Bucks.

Two complications arise. First, for the contestant: nobody has ever survived anywhere near 30 days. Ben Richards knows this, though, and hopes only to survive long enough to leave his wife and daughter secure financially.

Second, for the reader: how the hell do you do a show where everyone involved is hidden somewhere? King…doesn’t quite know how to answer that. He outlines a rule requiring the contestant to send the Network two videotaped messages every day, which are then used as part of the episode that night. If the contestant fails to do so, they forfeit their winnings and are still hunted.

It’s difficult to imagine millions of people tuning in each night to see some prerecorded video of a man in a hotel room saying, “Yes, hello, I am still running for my life,” let alone the bloodthirsty, howling studio audience King describes. The episode in which that man is caught and gunned down, yes. But the umpteenth episode in which nothing happens and nobody’s around aside from the host? No.

There is one tantalizingly unanswered question this raises, though. Richards is promised that the Hunters will not be given access to any information obtained from the postmarks on the recordings he mails in, but the ease with which they find him (and everybody) makes it easy to believe this is a lie, and the game is indeed fixed. To King’s credit, he either chose not to resolve this definitively or forgot to. Either way, it’s nice that we don’t know. The Hunters are either just that good at their jobs, or they hang around waiting for the Network to tell them exactly where the contestant is hiding. (Or, at least, the zip code.)

Glaser’s version of The Running Man does at least operate the way we’d expect a game show to operate; that is to say, the audience can actually see what the hell is happening.

Here, The Running Man is a live broadcast in which convicted criminals (not volunteers) are loaded into shuttles and launched into a Game Zone — a walled-off, disused area of the city — below the studio. It’s still very large (400 square blocks, which seems like an odd unit of measurement when blocks are longer than they are wide but there you go), but it’s still, essentially, an enclosed combat arena.

The audience watches a video feed of the contestants squaring off against the Stalkers, who are gimmicky, themed athletes, something like a cross between WWF wrestlers and American Gladiators. The contestants don’t earn money, but if they survive for three hours they win their freedom.

That obviously works better as a television show than King’s version does, so it clears that rather significant hurdle, but this also leads to its own problems.

For instance, it’s never clear how often the contestants are in view of a camera. If they’re constantly being filmed, the Stalkers wouldn’t have to hunt them out and there would be no game. But for the audience to reliably see the fights unfold, there would have to be nowhere for them to hide from the cameras.

Of course, the answer should be that there is nowhere for them to hide from the cameras, and the “hunting” of the contestants is only dramatic flair. Should be. But there’s an unnecessary subplot about the contestants (four in total) tracking down and jamming “the uplink to the satellite,” essentially preventing the Network from broadcasting. If anyone saw them do that, all pretense about the contestants being able to hide would be dropped immediately and the Stalkers sent to kill them at once. Instead, the contestants are allowed to fiddle with it at their leisure, so I guess they really are able to hide.

Also, forgive me for asking because I know this is totally out of line, but…why, exactly, is the satellite uplink located within the Game Zone? Even if they never expected contestants to be able to hack it or sabotage it, isn’t the mere fact that massive gladiators with chainsaw motorcycles would be engaging in active combat around it a bit worrying? Shouldn’t the uplink be located…I don’t know…literally anywhere else on Earth?

At one point it’s revealed that the resistance group that we meet early in the film have a hideout that’s also within the Game Zone. How do they get in? How have they not been spotted? I guess they could have tunneled in from the outside, but the fact that they’re still alive and Richards and his buddies can meet up with them proves that the Network needs to do a much better job of paying attention to what, exactly, is in their own damned Game Zone.

These things feel like holdovers from a version of the script truer to King’s tale. If Schwarzenegger were indeed fleeing the Stalkers openly across America, he could certainly stumble upon uplinks and resistance camps and anything else Glaser would like him to find. But for him to stumble upon these things in what is essentially the show’s own studio is a profoundly idiotic contrivance.

There’s also the odd fact that the Stalkers seem to have their own dedicated entrances in the Game Zone, reflecting their gimmick and, I suppose, providing a bit of visual drama to their introduction. Which is fine. But since they don’t seem to show up until the contestants are exactly there, it should be pretty easy to survive just by keeping away from the elaborately lit entrances, no?

Also notable is the fact that Schwarzenegger is actually on the run early in the film, but is captured and brought to The Running Man‘s set. In King’s version, Richards starts on a sound stage and runs. In Glaser’s, Richards runs and then comes to a sound stage. One is clearly a less thrilling progression than the other, and it leads to the bizarre realization that in a film called The Running Man, the man was stopped from running so he could hide instead.

While the film was in production, Glaser was brought in to replace the original director, Andrew Davis, who had fallen behind schedule. I know nothing about what creative differences we’d find between the two versions of the film, but I almost get the sense that some of these things were holdovers from an earlier version of the script that actually did more clearly reflect King’s original.

This is seemingly supported by the fact that the version of The Running Man we did get feels like two different films badly stitched together. One of them is a mindless action movie in which Schwarzenegger beats up a guy and then beats up a guy and then beats up a guy and then the credits roll, and the other is a social satire. “Game show in which you fight for your life” is a concept that can certainly go in either direction, but this film wants it to go in both. One isn’t interesting, and the other isn’t given enough space to be interesting.

The social satire just barely surfaces at various points throughout the movie. Early on we catch a glimpse of a television show in which a man climbs a rope while vicious dogs leap up at him, bite at his legs, and eventually pull him down to his presumed grisly death. Words appear on the screen: “Climbing for Dollars will be right back!”

It’s funny. It’s also funny when a man meets with the captured Richards before the show and introduces himself by saying, “I’m your court-appointed theatrical agent.” As is the show’s announcer saying that members of the studio audience receive “procreation pills, both adult and kiddie sizes, and the latest edition of The Running Man home game.”

These are lines and details from a much better version of the movie, one that leans into the ridiculousness of the premise while still making its point. But they’re also rarities, moments of fleeting invention bowled over and smothered by brainless, uninteresting action set pieces designed to say precisely nothing.

The connective tissue between these two competing versions of The Running Man also, perhaps miraculously, is the film’s lone highlight: Richard Dawson.

Dawson plays Damon Killian, the host of The Running Man, with the oily charm and swagger only a man with decades of experience in the industry could bring to the role. He is eager to have fun with his own image and ends up being the most entertaining thing in the film by a country mile. In short, he knows how to work his audience…both his fictional one and his real one.

Again, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I have to imagine Dawson brought his own ideas to the character. If that’s not the case, then he was written far, far better than any other character was, and I doubt that very much. More likely there were words on a page, and Dawson, the old pro, embellished them, enhanced them, gave them a life that wasn’t there.

Even as a teenager watching this film for the first time, I could tell Dawson was operating on a level well above the rest of the material. He was believable…an actual character among the caricatures.

I recognized him from Family Feud, of which he was the original host. (He came back to host it again in the 1990s.) Prior to that he served as a regular panelist on The Match Game, which I used to watch in reruns. My friends and I even singled him out as the reliably intelligent one; contestants who did not agree with Dawson’s answers sure seemed to pay the price.

In The Running Man, Dawson embodies his own legend, and the film is infinitely richer for it. He gladhands and compliments and makes people feel important before firing them behind their backs. He’s a cold, evil man who becomes warm and lovable the moment the cameras turn on. He hawks Cadre Cola at the same time he gives the impression he wouldn’t be caught dead drinking that shit. He even brings his habit of kissing old ladies on Family Feud into these darker environs. “The love of my life, my number one fan, Mrs. McArdle!” he says. “I want a kiss now, a big kiss, but remember, no tongues.”

Lives are at stake. Blood will be shed. People will die. And Dawson is all smiles and cheese.

It’s wonderful, and it feels like Dawson knowingly undercutting his own legacy. Since he plays the on-camera version of Killian so much like the game show host he actually once was, he’s inviting the public to question how different he might be when the cameras are off. Was he secretly villainous? I truly doubt it, but the man sure enjoys playing with the possibility.

Dawson fits into the both the social satire version of the film and the action movie that needs an entertaining villain. He’s the one and only aspect of The Running Man that succeeds, and that’s entirely down to Dawson himself.

There’s even a great moment that was nearly a terrible one, redeemed, of course, by Dawson. When Schwarzenegger is about to be sent to the Game Zone, the Austrian superstar says, “I’ll be back,” a nod to his already immortal catchphrase from The Terminator, only three years old at this point.

It’s jarring. We’re watching a crappy movie that has gone out of its way to remind us of a far better one. And though Dawson’s reply was certainly in the script, it’s fitting that he, the movie’s bright spot, was the one to deliver it.

He leans in to Schwarzenegger and says, “Only in a rerun.”

Everything about Dawson here is great, and I’d wager Killian’s signature mannerism — pointing with his fingers in a “devil horns” arrangement — was brought to this film by the actor himself. If I’m wrong and that was actually in the script, it’s the cleverest piece of business the script gave any actor by a landslide.

If The Running Man were a better film, I think Dawson’s performance would be remembered among the all-time great corny villains. Instead, it’s wasted on this, an oddly complicated framework for Schwarzenegger to dispatch some meatheads and spout one-liners.

Damon Killian is a composite character of several in the book. He’s assistant director of games Arthur M. Burns, director Fred Victor, host Bobby Thompson, and obviously Games Network head honcho Dan Killian. Rolling all of these characters into one unified face of the network is a wise decision on the film’s part, especially since, in the book, Dan Killian is the one Richards singles out for abuse and eventual revenge, which seems a bit odd when the others were far more responsible for his ordeal.

It’s less odd — but far more problematic — when you realize that Richards fixates on Killian because of the color of his skin. The other Games Network representatives are white, and Killian is black. Like, black black. So black you just know he’s a bad guy. Here’s how King introduces him:

The man behind the desk was of middle height and very black. So black, in fact, that for a moment Richards was struck with unreality. He might have stepped out of a minstrel show.

Jesus Christ, Stephen.

In the book, Richards endures a number of personality, intelligence, and psychological tests before taking part in The Running Man, and he demonstrates — and we are conclusively told — that he harbors racist sentiments. Dan Killian is certainly not a sympathetic character, but it’s more than a little uncomfortable that his skin color is what turns him into a punching bag.

Richard Dawson is about as black as a daffodil, so, thankfully, his casting sidesteps that entire, unnecessary minefield.

While many characters are condensed into Damon Killian, though, the Hunters are expanded. The only one named — and the only one we really get to meet — in the book is Evan McCone, who organizes and manages the team. In the film, the Stalkers have distinct identities of their own.

Distinct, but not very good.

The Stalkers in this movie have gimmicks and nicknames that make them sound like G.I. Joe characters. Fireball. Dynamo. Buzzsaw. Captain Freedom. One of them, Subzero, even had a name that would be used in 1992’s Mortal Kombat, which reveals just how video-game-ready these characters actually are.

In King’s original, the Hunters were unseen presences, shadowy threats without distinct identities, because it was important that Richards couldn’t trust anybody. A hobo. A jogger. A street vendor. A policeman. Anybody could be a Hunter, and anybody could report him to a Hunter.

There’s a great scene of masterful paranoia that unfolds after Richards, under an assumed identity, takes refuge in a YMCA in Boston. With nothing else to do, he stares out the window…and the normal behavior of passersby gradually makes him feel less and less safe.

Richards noted with a numb, distant terror that a good many of the newspaper bums were idling along much more slowly. Their clothes and styles of walking seemed oddly familiar, as if they had been around a great many times before and Richards was just becoming aware of it — in the tentative, uneasy way you recognize the voices of the dead in dreams.

A man waiting for a bus. Two friends going into a restaurant. A beat cop in casual conversation. Knowing he’s in danger, Richards convinces himself that everything is dangerous. It’s well handled and effectively frightening, because once you start to suspect the benign, there’s no escape from the horrors of your own imagination.

It’s undercut by the fact that Richards is correct — the Hunters are indeed surrounding the building and about to ransack it — but that’s just further evidence of King writing well and not realizing it.

In the film, there’s no such paranoia. Schwarzenegger doesn’t have to worry about who might possibly be a Stalker…it’s probably that guy with the flame thrower screaming and throwing flames everywhere. Or it’s the guy covered in Lite-Brite pegs shooting electricity out of his hands. The novel version of Richards has to rely on his wits alone, and the film version just needs his brawn. It will always be remarkable to me that in the transition from page to screen, one type of character will become, in the blink of an eye, that same type’s polar opposite.

King’s version of Richards relies on a combination of desperate resourcefulness and dumb luck to escape his various predicaments. Glaser’s version beats things up and delivers ostensibly witty one-liners.

After killing the first Stalker, Schwarzenegger turns to the camera and says, “Here is Subzero. Now plain zero.” After chainsawing Buzzsaw, Schwarzenegger quips, “He had to split.” Fireball gets the luxury of two puns about his horrifying death; Schwarzenegger says, “How about a light?” before setting him on fire, and “What a hothead” immediately after.

All of this would be fine in any other interchangeable action movie, but probably not one in which Schwarzenegger is supposed to be playing a man framed for a violent crime he didn’t commit. I understand that the circumstances are very different, but if this version of Richards wants to convince the world he didn’t open fire on unarmed civilians, he probably shouldn’t take such obvious delight in murdering people by chainsawing through their genitals.

Yes, unlike the downtrodden Richards of the novel who has no other way of providing for his family, this version of Richards was some kind of cop. He’s given the order to kill a group of defenseless civilians and refuses, but his fellow officers overpower him and obey the order. (Exhibit G that Schwarzenegger was miscast: The film opens with a bunch of wimps beating him up.)

Some doctored footage is all it takes to make the world think that Richards chose to defy orders by killing the civilians, and his fellow officers tried to stop him.

It’s a bit strange, though, that a policeman in this police state doesn’t actually realize that he lives in a dystopia until this moment. We’re shown that the world (or at least America) has long fallen into this shitty situation where the poor are repressed and criminals are executed for our entertainment on live television, but Richards is shocked to receive orders to do something untoward.

“I said the crowd is unarmed!” he barks over the radio after being told to kill them. “There are lots of women and children down there!” Did Richards somehow decide to become a police officer, complete all his training, and begin his career in law enforcement without ever realizing that he was working for Big Brother? Richards is painted as an uncommonly moral human being in this cruel, inhumane future, but if that’s the case, why did he knowingly sign up for the Schutzstaffel?

A great piece of media that understands this and serves as a nice counterpoint is The Last of Us. At the very beginning of that game, a soldier gets the order to execute a little girl and her father who are attempting to flee the city. He has a short, nervous exchange over his radio to confirm that this is actually the order…that this is actually what they want to do. The game then pushes us 20 years into the future, and soldiers aren’t asking questions anymore. If they’re told to kill someone, they kill them, because it’s no longer an unfamiliar order. Confused reluctance only has a home at the very beginning of this process…not years deep into it.

Perhaps Richards joined up knowing that the police were corrupt, but intended to be one of the good guys and maybe effect change from within…but he can’t have been surprised to receive an order he disagreed with in that case. How did this conflict never come up before? How did Richards never even anticipate the conflict? He comes across looking far less like the One Pure Soul than he does like David Mitchell asking, “…are we the baddies?”

The movie is oddly filled with moments like this, in which people who live in this society seem to be surprised and confused by it, as though, you know, they weren’t adults who watched it get to this point and have lived in it for at least two years, based on the opening text.

In the novel, flawed as it is, King’s characters react more appropriately. Memories of a freer, better past have been more or less completely lost, with loose fragments of history passed around like parables among people who can no longer understand it. Otherwise, this is what the world is, this is what the characters have known, and they don’t question it any more than we in reality question our own societies. We don’t ask why someone on TV spins a wheel and solves word puzzles for money, and they don’t ask why someone signs up to flee a squad of hitmen across the country. They’ve become equivalent. At that point, King knows, people stop questioning it. That’s the real horror.

Glaser, by contrast, doesn’t seem to realize that none of this is new to these characters, and so they shouldn’t comment upon it and question it as though it is. It’s as though all of his main characters recently suffered severe head injuries.

Late in King’s novel, Richards forces himself into a vehicle with a woman named Amelia Williams. She’s something of a hostage who Richards does indeed use as leverage, but King wants us to remember that Richards doesn’t steal her away because he’s a bad person; he does it because he’s a desperate person.

A desperate person who bullies her, browbeats her, makes her cry, ogles her tits, and eventually causes her to be sucked out of a moving airplane, but absolutely not a bad person, and I can’t possibly see how you might mistake him for one.

In the film, we meet her equivalent much sooner. Here she’s Amber Mendez, and she’s played by María Conchita Alonso, who you may remember from every other movie from the 1980s that wasn’t worth seeing.

I mean no disrespect to Alonso as a person. From what I understand she, like Schwarzenegger, has a large number of great qualities to offer the world. Also like Schwarzenegger, acting was never one of them.

In the film, Richards is incarcerated for his crime of disobeying orders. He shoots his way out of prison, killing dozens of guards as he does so. (Murder is perfectly fine in Glaser’s version, except for the one very specific time that it isn’t.) Once he’s out he flees to his brother’s apartment and finds it occupied by Amber Mendez instead.

In this scene, Schwarzenegger and Alonso carry on a long exchange that makes it sound like they’re both still learning English from flashcards. It’s atrociously acted, even in comparison to the writing which was already pretty darn poor. But, of course, we know that our two leads were not hired for their ability to inhabit a character.

Schwarzenegger was hired because he was a bankable name at the box office. Alonso was hired because…

Yeah. The first we see of Amber is her return from work. As all of us do, she removes her shoes when she gets home. As only she does, she takes everything else off and puts on sexy lingerie to work out in.

Alonso is an attractive woman, and The Running Man makes clear that that’s all they wanted from her. As soon as we see her, the filmmakers rush her out of her clothes. When we see her later, they rush her into a low-cut, skin-tight onesie. Between those two points we hear other characters complimenting her ass.

Richards — introduced to us as the lone virtuous soul in this ruined world — breaks into her apartment and immediately ties the half-naked woman up and starts going through her things. It’s actually pretty uncomfortable to watch, as I’m pretty sure this is any single woman’s actual nightmare.

The film tries to play them like a sort of mismatched romantic comedy team, with their bickering only barely masking the sexual tension they feel that indeed is resolved when the film ends. Only Richards destroys her belongings, steals from her, kidnaps her, and threatens multiple times to murder her in cold blood. Oh, and we’re supposed to see Amber as the bad guy when she turns him in so she can escape. What a bitch, eh guys?

Of course, problematic handling of female characters is something of a King trademark, along with every black character’s dialogue being rendered so that it sounds like it’s been transcribed from Song of the South, so maybe this was just Glaser’s loving nod to the source material.

My favorite bit of offputting King horniness comes during one of Richards’ pre-show exams:

On the table was a sharpened G-A/IBM pencil and a pile of unlined paper. Cheap grade, Richards noted. Standing beside all this was a dazzling computer-age priestess, a tall, Junoesque blonde wearing iridescent short shorts which cleanly outlined the delta-shaped rise of her pudenda. Rough nipples poked perkily through a silk fishnet blouselet.

Lifehack: If you’re in a kinky relationship and need a safe word, try “pudenda.” Not only will your partner stop what they’re doing immediately, but they won’t even want to think about sex for a week.

This is the description, I remind you, of a test proctor. Not that it would be any less disgusting if he were describing a prostitute that a character were about to have sex with, but at least such a description might serve a purpose there. Here it’s just ogling.

Admittedly, Richards seems to believe she was sent in as some kind of test herself…a sexed up babe to distract him or confuse him or actually he didn’t think this through any better than King did so forget it.

If that is her role, though, it doesn’t make sense that she’d bristle and quickly turn emotional when he called her on it. And if it’s not, then Richards has no right to belittle her the way he does and make her feel like a cheap piece of meat.

“You go out and have a nice six-course meal with whoever you’re sleeping with this week and think about my kid dying of flu in a shitty three-room Development apartment,” he tells her, immediately after groping her in a way that she makes clear is unwelcome.

It would be nice to say that the racism and misogyny (among other issues) are built into Richards as character flaws, problematic traits with an actual artistic or narrative purpose. But they aren’t; this is just the way King writes. To read his work is to grit your teeth in unhappy anticipation of the next time he plunges you into an unnecessary, detailed description of somebody’s penis or vagina. And there is always a next time.

Amber’s role here is a bit different from Amelia’s in the novel. In the novel, Amelia was just pulled along for the ride. (Twice, because King let her go at one point and forgot he needed her for a later scene so he dragged her back into the fray.) In the film, Amber gets Richards arrested again, but notices that the news coverage of the event doesn’t match up to what she actually witnessed.

She begins snooping around the network and finds the original, unedited footage of the exchange between Richards and his superiors that opened the film. Boy, it’s a good thing that this evil corporation clearly marks the evidence that will bring it down and keeps it in an unlocked drawer in an unguarded room.

Well, it’s probably better than keeping your satellite uplink in the middle of Thunderdome, but still.

Amber has access to the network building because she’s employed by them; she works as a composer for their shows. The fact that any movie could introduce this detail and then somehow not show us her process for composing the incidental music for a game show in which contestants get torn apart by dogs is outrageous.

Again, though, Amber shouldn’t have to (or even be able to) discover the fact that the network lies. If she didn’t work there, sure. But because she does work there — and is there every day, and has access to rooms such as this — it can’t be a revelation. Just as Richards shouldn’t be able to realize in the middle of a mission that his superiors aren’t making the most ethical decisions, Amber shouldn’t be able to realize in the middle of a workday that her organization lies. Her organization’s business is lies. That’s what they do. That’s all they do. They mislead and misinform.

As an employee, she shouldn’t be unaware of that fact. If the network truly tried to hide from everyone who works there that they spread untruths, it would crumble immediately. One leak, however minor, would bring the entire thing down. Instead, an organization like this has to convince its employees that lying is the best thing for them to do. That it’s a small transgression in exchange for some greater good. That it’s better, for any reason, to lie to the people who turn to them for information.

Consider O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He knows The Party is lying to the people. He has to know that, because he’s employed by them. He doesn’t capture and torture and reprogram Winston because Winston was incorrect; he does it because he was correct, and O’Brien believed the lie was necessary.

If The Party attempted to hide from its own members what they were doing, we never would have had Nineteen Eighty-Four; The Party wouldn’t have survived long enough for there to be a story. Instead, it had to convince its members that wrong was right. The network in this film could learn a lot from Orwell.

Amber is caught and tossed into the Game Zone with Richards and two other runners. She does nothing, but much later in the film a Stalker tries to rape her, so I guess that’s nice. If only he would have first broken into her home and tied her to the furniture she might have ultimately warmed up to him.

When Richards strangles and kills Subzero (“He was a real pain in the neck”), much ado is made of the fact that a Stalker has died on the job. Evidently, this has never happened before. At least, that’s what we’re told.

But we know that two other contestants are said to have won The Running Man in the past. (This is in notable contrast to the novel, in which we are assured that nobody has ever won.) Of course, the freedom of those two winners is revealed to have been faked; they were executed behind the scenes instead. That’s fine, but how did those episodes play out for the viewers at home?

If those winners didn’t kill any of the Stalkers and also didn’t get killed themselves, I assume that means they just survived for three hours. So were those episodes just three-hour slapfights in which neither party fell over? It feels like a bizarre holdover from a different version of the script, as does Captain Freedom — Jesse “The Body” Ventura — being described as “undefeated.” Wouldn’t every Stalker be undefeated if none of them ever died in this bloodsport before tonight?

Eventually Schwarzenegger beats up enough people that the movie needs to end, so he makes his way onto the stage to confront Killian directly.

In a way, this is the climax of the novel as well. There, Richards hijacks a passenger plane and flies it into the massively tall headquarters of the Games Network, presumably killing everybody inside and huge numbers of innocent people all around it. “It rained fire twenty blocks away,” King assures us. He also assures us that good Ben Richards got to see a look of horror on Killian’s face through his office window as he gave him the finger and plowed the plane directly into him.

Richards died as he lived: disrespecting black people.

In the film, Schwarzenegger takes a more hands-on approach to dealing with Killian. And Killian gets a decent — though certainly not great — little speech to go out on.

“For Christ’s sake, Ben,” he says. “Don’t you understand? Americans love television. They ween their kids on it. Listen, they love game shows, they love wrestling, they love sports, and violence. So what do we do? We give ’em what they want. We’re number one, Ben, that’s all that counts.”

Any credit I could give the movie for this speech is negated by the sheer stupidity of Killian delivering it to Richards over the chute that leads to the Game Zone, as a shuttle is actively loaded into it, making it impossible to focus on anything other than the remarkable clumsiness with which the film is setting up its conclusion.

Sure enough, Richards stuffs Killian in the shuttle and fires him down the tube.

Which…shouldn’t really be a big deal. The Stalkers are all dead, so can’t Killian just get out of the shuttle and work his way back up through the backstage areas?

Oh, I guess Richards somehow knew that this time — like no other time — the shuttle would hit a wall and explode, raining bits of Killian twenty blocks away.

The shuttle even does Richards the courtesy of crashing directly through a Cadre Cola billboard with Killian’s face on it so that Schwarzenegger can say, “Well, that hit the spot.”

In both versions of the ending, the everyman takes down the network and kills its figurehead. In the film, though, all sense of personal sacrifice is lost. One version of Richards dies along with everyone else responsible for running the Games Network. The other wanders off to fuck María Conchita Alonso.

The Running Man is a terrible film based on a pretty lousy book, and it’s disappointing for just how mindlessly it squanders its potential.

King’s idea was fine. Swap in some better characters and do the concept justice, or at least play into the ridiculousness a little bit more. For a movie with a wisecracking action hero, The Running Man is rarely any fun. When it is, it feels for a fleeting moment like you’re watching a different film entirely.

Had Glaser done more along the lines of the Climbing for Dollars commercial and Captain Freedom’s workout video, putting together a grander, funnier, more cynical pastiche of entertainment culture, employing the exact same superficial glitz and unapologetic appeals to the viewer’s base instincts that it’s satirizing, we could have gotten a pretty good film. It wouldn’t have been The Running Man, no, but what we got wasn’t The Running Man, either.

Honestly, I have to wonder why they bothered paying for the rights to The Running Man at all, if it was to share so little with its source material. The central game is completely different, with its own rules, presentation, and rewards. Change the name of the main character and the name of the game show and it would be impossible for anyone to sue for copyright infringement. Actually, you could probably even keep the main character’s name. With literally nothing else taken from the novel, “Ben Richards” is common enough that you could argue it’s coincidence.

Of course, the answer is that they licensed the rights to the novel because Stephen King’s name is worth something to moviegoers, but King successfully lobbied to have his name withheld from the film and its promotional materials.

Watching The Running Man is a strange experience after having read the novel, if only because it seems unnaturally driven to squander even more potential than King did. It’s not an especially fun movie and it’s by no stretch of the imagination a good one.

And as much as I love (and I do love) Richard Dawson’s performance, I can’t say it’s worth watching even for that.

Maybe he should have directed the movie. He’s certainly the only one who understood what it was about.

The Running Man
(1982, Stephen King [as Richard Bachman]; 1987, Paul Michael Glaser)

Book or film? Book
Worth reading the story? Yes. It’s flawed but engaging.
Worth watching the film? No, with the notable exception of one great performance.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Not a chance.
Is it of merit in its own right? It gives the middle finger to and plows a plane right through merit.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Winner” (season 4, episode 10)

If you had asked me 10 weeks ago how excited I was to finally learn the story of how Gus dug a big hole, I would have been able to answer you very easily. But, as it has many times before, Better Call Saul found a story worth telling where I honestly would have guessed there couldn’t be any.

If season three revealed itself in its final moments to have been about Chuck, season four may have done the same thing with Mike. It’s not an easy trick to make an audience sympathize with the guy who pulls the trigger, but I was genuinely shaken up by where his story with Werner ended.

The other big thing that happened this week is that Jimmy got his license reinstated and immediately requested a DBA (doing business as) form, because he won’t be practicing as James McGill anymore. This is fine, and Jimmy’s bluff during the hearing fools even Kim (get out, Kim!), which was one of several very nice moments in his half of the episode…but it’s Mike’s that really resonated, it’s Mike’s that will echo like a gunshot in the night.

Werner was never a bad person, and Mike knew that. That’s why he stood up for him, time and again. That’s why he tried to help him. Tried to reassure him. Tried to encourage him to push through. Left to his own devices, Gus would have taken care of Werner weeks before it got to a crisis point, but Mike held him back. Mike knew Werner in a way Gus didn’t. Mike knew the guy wouldn’t be a problem.

And Werner made a fool of him. His escape last week sent Gus’ entire team on a manhunt. Even then — even as he has no choice but to hunt Werner down like an animal — Mike is trying to convince Gus not to eliminate the problem in the simplest way.

But, as Mike tells Werner late in the episode, it was never up to him.

The story of how Gus dug a big hole ended up being one of the most affecting and haunting things the show has done yet. Not because it introduced a disposable character and then disposed of him, but because of what the experience did to Mike.

Mike meets Werner and feels a degree of respect for him. Once he’s hired, Mike then treats him as a reliable partner. Somewhere down the line, Mike realizes he’s made a friend. They open up to each other. They like each other. And so when Werner, inch by inch, threatens to bring Gus’ operation crashing down, Mike makes allowances. He makes excuses. He tries to win Werner back over.

It doesn’t work. It can’t work. Mike thinks of everything. Mike knows better. But Mike wants so desperately for Werner to prove him right for believing in him that he blinds himself to the truth. Maybe we remember Kim’s relationship with Jimmy, and their own sunk costs…

It terminates in the cruelest damned scene imaginable, with Mike left to take his own friend’s life under the desert sky. It’s a very Lenny and George moment, right down to the fact that if Mike waits, someone else will come and do the deed for him. But Mike knows it’s better this way. Werner looks to the stars.

The entire scene is heartwrenching. Werner calls his wife and demands that she turn back, ensuring that the last thing she’ll ever remember him saying to her is that he doesn’t want to see her. Mike’s voice breaks as he tries to explain why there’s no other way this can end. Two men with a personal relationship know that it’s their professional relationship that will determine how this ends.

Perhaps this experience is what causes Mike to make the fatal decision to go easy on Walt in Breaking Bad. In this case, it wasn’t Mike’s decision to make. In that one, it was. He was never as close to Walt as he was to Werner, but I could understand him not wanting to pull that trigger a second time. The first time was plenty.

Mike breaks his own heart that night. Mike brings Werner to the abandoned raceway, Mike pulls the trigger, Mike carries the body back to the car. This is the life he has chosen for himself. This is a life in which you kill your friend the moment he can no longer be trusted. And, if you don’t, you pay for it yourself.

After that harrowing scene we cut to Gayle, whose giddy enthusiasm for the big hole Gus dug would normally be an episode highlight. Here, it’s all too easy to feel the weight Gus and Mike feel in the scene. They aren’t appreciative of his antics. I wasn’t, either. (And I mean that as a massive compliment to the writers.)

Even Jimmy being reinstated isn’t allowed to register as a triumph, because he hurts Kim with his phony emotions. We don’t get to believe anything will work out. Season four doesn’t let us. These characters are in their darkest corners yet, and they aren’t going to get out. They’re only going to retreat further.

Everybody has their place. Jimmy’s reminded of that this week, at a damned important crossroads in his life, when he lobbies for a young girl with a shoplifting record to get a scholarship. She’s turned her life around. She’s gotten good grades. She believes there’s something for her in the future. But when Jimmy mentions her name, all he hears in response is, “The shoplifter?”

You might not like the hole they cram you in, but you aren’t getting out, so you might as well make yourself comfortable.

Here’s hoping season five opens with Kim poking Jimmy in the eye and hopping in a cab back to Nebraska.

To everyone who followed these reviews this season, I hope you enjoyed. Thank you for reading.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Wiedersehen” (season 4, episode 9)

When this episode began and I saw Gennifer Hutchison as the credited writer and Vince Gilligan as director, I knew “Wiedersehen” was going to be good. And it was. But it was also an episode that I don’t think I can fully evaluate until I know where some things go. It’s like Jimmy speaking to his ex-client’s next of kin about her Hummel figurines in “Piñata.” We can read as much as we like into it, but it might be worth waiting to see what happens next.

There is at least one thing, though, that we need to get clear at this exact point, before we move any further.

In a heated conversation toward the end of the episode, Kim (completely in the right) lets Jimmy have it. Whenever he needs her, she drops everything for him. She bails his ass out left and right. Whatever mess he makes, she’s the first to pick up a broom and start cleaning it up.

But Jimmy doesn’t appreciate that. At least, not as much as or in the way that he should.

So Kim tells him something. She says, “Maybe next time you call, I won’t come.”

That should sound familiar. That needs to sound familiar. Because that’s exactly the position Jimmy occupied in relation to Chuck. And in season three’s “Sunk Costs,” Jimmy told Chuck the same thing. One day he’d need him…and Jimmy wouldn’t be there.

That day came at the end of season three. And Jimmy was not there.

In his relationship with Kim, Jimmy has taken on the Chuck role. He is now the needy McGill, turning again and again to the same person to keep him functional. Taking more advantage every time. Not appreciating what he has.

And, ultimately, driving that person away.

Is that how this ends? I don’t know. But “Wiedersehen” draws the parallel almost verbatim.

It matters whether or not Kim genuinely does leave Jimmy at his lowest point, when he needs her most. Of course it does. But it also matters that this relationship echoes that one right now.

That’s terrifying.

Elsewhere, another relationship sours as well. Mike and Werner were already on tenuous ground last week, and this week things seem both better and worse. Better because the work is progressing again and Werner and Mike are back to sharing details of their lives. Worse because Werner is breaking and doesn’t let Mike know just how bad it’s getting.

And then Werner is gone. Mike spots some dead pixels on the bank of surveillance monitors and quickly uncovers Werner’s great escape.

Mike’s ultimate (in a literal sense) tragedy is that he’s a softie. I mean, he’s Mike, yes, and his badassery isn’t a front. That is really who he is. But, at heart, he also wants to see the best in people. He knows better, but keeps letting his guard down. That’s why in Breaking Bad he’s able to give Walt a speech about never taking half-measures before later taking a half-measure with the man who would kill him in return.

And it’s why here he still treats Werner as a friend, still grants him extra telephone privileges, still reassures him and does him favors, just for Werner to stab him in the back.

Mike’s tragedy is that he still has a heart. It’s that in spite of how much time he spends with, around, and against scum, he still wants to believe in people. It’s that no matter how much he hardens himself against the world, he’s still willing to let someone in.

One definite development “Wiedersehen” gives us, though, is the start of what’s sure to be a satisfying face-off between Eduardo and Gus. I mentioned a few weeks ago that Gus seems to already be at his terminal point; he’s not much different here, if at all, from the character we met in Breaking Bad. So what, really, can Better Call Saul do with him?

Well, it can give him a new adversary specific to this show, and that’s what it’s done with Eduardo.

As I said last week, Eduardo is dangerous because he’s charming, he’s fun, he’s conversational. And, sure enough, as he thanked Gus for saving Hector’s life, I was willing to believe him. I knew better, and the opening scene between Eduardo and Hector all but spelled it out for us, but…Eduardo just seems so nice. He’s insincere, as Jimmy’s reinstatement committee might complain, but…well…maybe he really is willing to reach out in peace.

He’s not. Of course he’s not. But Eduardo leaves room for a maybe, whereas Tuco or Hector or any other Salamanca absolutely does not. Eduardo has people skills. He’s all smiles and compliments and flattery. Whatever eventual confrontation happens between him and Gus, we know Gus comes out of it alive. But we don’t know precisely what that confrontation looks like, and it’s impressive that Better Call Saul has found room to keep us guessing in what I thought was a tale fully told.

“Wiedersehen” mainly just moves us closer to the end of the season. It’s doing some busywork. That’s probably why they assigned this episode to one of their best writers and clearly their best director. It was an episode born of necessity, and they found the right people to elevate it. Or, perhaps, to string it up.

We’ll see what happens next week, when they finally swing the bat.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Coushatta” (season 4, episode 8)

My biggest concern with Better Call Saul — admittedly one that has not held it back from being great in its own right — is its willingness to dive clearly into Breaking Bad territory and stay there. Call it a turf war, if you like.

Breaking Bad was an immense and important piece of television that was — for almost impossibly long stretches — perfect. And Better Call Saul has an identity of its own. While it may share characters and flesh out some details that that other show introduced, this show has its own merit, its own personality, its own momentum.

And so it feels disappointing to me when Better Call Saul lets characters like Gus or Mike occupy so much screen time without telling us anything new about them. Characters like Jimmy, and until very recently Hector, don’t have this problem. They’re different incarnations of the characters from those we knew on Breaking Bad. We do learn new things about them, simply because we get to know who they used to be.

I’ve complained about it enough in previous reviews that I don’t need to get back into it here, and I’m only bringing it up because “Coushatta” is an episode that does great things with the cards unique to Better Call Saul‘s hand. In a show that is too often happy to sideline its own potential, we get an episode that shows us why these characters, and their particular stories, are worth spending time with.

There’s Mrs. Nguyen, the salon owner, who pours Jimmy a drink and gives him trite relationship advice that reveals her, beautifully, to be a character who thinks she’s in the sitcom Better Call Saul nearly was. There’s Jimmy’s commercial crew, in particular the girl who’s been taking an improv class, helping him to impersonate an entire small town in Louisiana. And there’s Werner, who…

Well, let’s give Werner a paragraph break.

I like this guy. I enjoyed Mike’s recruitment of a construction foreman in “Quite a Ride” well enough, but I didn’t expect to enjoy the new character we got out of the deal so much.

Werner is a calm, measured, gifted engineer who honestly seems to do a decent job of managing his crew while also treating them respectfully. Like Gayle — who will put the lab they’re building to eventual use — he comes across as a good person who has his own reasons for devoting his talents to the bad guys. (In this case it seems to be money.)

Perhaps most surprisingly, he gets along with Mike. Not just in the sense that they work together well, or they trust each other, but in the sense that they’re…friendly.

Of course, this is revealed to be a piñata that was strung up just so it could be smashed to pieces, but there haven’t been many moments sweeter than when Mike sees Werner sitting alone in a strip club and invites him to a nearby bar for a quiet drink.

Mike, for whatever reason, likes Werner. Perhaps he needs the companionship. I wouldn’t say that’s much in line with the Mike we know otherwise, but it’s possible. Regardless, the two share an unexpectedly personal conversation. Werner does most of the talking, which is not a surprise, but the fact that Mike opens up at all is deeply significant. He remains a man of few words, but he still confides that his father was a deadbeat.

And that lends, I think, even more tragedy to Matty’s death. Mike harbors no fondness for his father, and it’s probably safe to say that he promised himself he’d be a far better father than he ever had. It’s also safe to say that he was. And he still got his son killed.

It’s a nice moment between two characters we like and who also like each other. It’s…friendship.

Sadly there’s another character unique to this show who spoils the mood. Of course he does, right? It’s Kai. The guy Mike told his security crew to keep an eye on. The guy who’s been difficult from the very start. The guy who actually gets named, so that we know who he is when Mike inevitably has to kill him.

Good old Kai, who got too drunk and touched a stripper. Mike steps away from Werner to take care of the problem child and…well, the child isn’t much of a problem. Kai returns to the barracks to get some sleep. Mike bribes the bouncer to keep things quiet. Since we met the kid we’ve been waiting for the showdown between him and Mike, and this could have been it, right here. But it wasn’t. Kai, wisely, backs down.

Mike returns to the bar, and we find that Werner was the problem child after all.

Unreliable, unpredictable Kai really is just a kid. He’ll do and say stupid things and he’ll likely face punishment for it. But it’s reliable, predictable Werner who poses the far greater risk.

On the back of a beermat, Werner doodles some schematics and talks to two new American friends a bit too openly about the project he’s working on. It’s bad, and it only got that bad because Mike liked the guy. Mike let his personal feelings get in the way of his professional ones. Earlier in the bar, Werner teaches a young man to pronounce hefeweizen…and then buys him one. The exchange is conducted over Mike, who at any point could tell (and clearly considers telling) Werner to keep his damn mouth shut.

But he doesn’t. Werner is lonely. Mike knows it. Mike lets Werner engage in friendly chat with the outside world…precisely what he and Gus have invested so much time and energy into preventing from happening.

And now I expect that it will be Werner rather than Kai who has to be permanently silenced. The next morning as the construction crew is loaded into the van, Mike lets a grabassing Kai pass. The chicanery he got up to last night isn’t what’s important. What’s important is Werner’s foolish, drunken conversation with outsiders who are bound to remember it.

Gus even brings it up. That’s never a good sign. Mike promises that he has his eye on Werner. The piñata is ready when he is.

I honestly can’t say enough about how much I’ve liked this development. Kai (and the show) made it clear that he was a dangerous addition to the team. What’s more, Mike is the most reliable perspective we have in Better Call Saul. When he identifies something as a problem, he’s right.

And I’m sure he was right. I’m sure Kai is a pile of shit that shouldn’t be involved with this project and cannot possibly do more good than he will do harm. But while we were all focused on him, we took our eyes off of Werner. Why not? Mike trusted the guy enough. Of course we can, too.

It’s an incredible sleight of hand that’s both terrifying and impressive. Before this episode, my girlfriend said she was looking forward to Kai inevitably getting killed. That’s what we were led to anticipate. That’s why Kai existed. But knowing someone to be a problematic presence isn’t what leads to catastrophe. No…catastrophe comes when you overlook someone you thought was safe.

Then there’s the introduction of another new character that I’m already in love with: Eduardo.

Eduardo is fantastic. In one scene the smirking, sashaying chef lands as an entertaining and welcome presence in an increasingly bleak corner of the show. Throughout Breaking Bad and Nacho’s storyline here, we’ve spent a lot of time in the drug trade and met pretty much exclusively scary people.

And, well, rightly so. It’s a scary and deadly business. The Salamancas themselves have all been various shades of terrifying, from unpredictable Tuco to the immovable cousins to worst human being imaginable Hector.

Eduardo represents a different kind of character, and not one we’ve seen before. The one who will joke around with you and cook you a damned fine meal and treat you like royalty without ever letting you forget that you’re scum, you’re being watched, and you’re on borrowed time.

He’s disarming, in other words. If you meet a Tuco or a Hector, you’re on your guard. (If you meet the cousins, you’re already dead.) But if you meet Eduardo, well…he’s charming. He’s fun. He’s clearly dangerous, but mainly because you’re far more likely to let him in.

Better Call Saul has a habit of introducing cartoony supporting characters and either humanizing or ditching them as time passes. And while I’d love to say that Eduardo isn’t a cartoon, that would be a lie. But he’s a calculated cartoon. A specific, useful persona that has his place in the Salamanca empire. And while I never expected Tuco or Hector to pose any real danger to Nacho, that’s because Nacho was always — always — clearly the smarter party.

With Eduardo? I’m not quite as sure. Nacho knows how to deal with the standard Salamanca attitude. Eduardo is going to require a whole other approach, and that’s an exciting complication.

The weightiest moment of the episode definitely came at the end, when Kim might as well have announced, “I’d prefer not to make it out of this show alive.”

Throughout most of “Coushatta,” we saw Kim putting up (and Jimmy respecting) a wall between herself and her former partner. By the end of it, she admits to missing their schemes and scams. The leak in the balloon is repaired. It is now guaranteed to burst.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this when we see exactly how it pans out, but right now I want to say that I’m surprised this wasn’t a season finale moment. Kim willfully turning to the dark side would seem like a nice breaking point, leaving us all to wonder specifically what that will look like. Instead we get two more episodes that will (to some degree at least) have the opportunity to show us.

I’m not complaining. I don’t know which approach I’d prefer. But this feels like the natural point of temporary closure, and it’s pretty gutsy and thrilling that the season has decided to continue beyond it.

Two more weeks. The warehouse is full of piñatas. Season four is going out swinging.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Something Stupid” (season 4, episode 7)

“You do your thing,” Jimmy says to Kim late in the episode. “I’ll do mine.”

It’s not confrontational at all. It’s delivered with the verbal cadence of agreement — we will each play our part in this plan — but the words themselves say the opposite.

It was a piercing moment in an episode that was almost entirely about the widening gulf between these two characters, and yet it was still something of a relief.

Why?

Imagine a balloon. It inflates. It inflates. It inflates. At some point, you brace against the coming burst. You know it can’t keep inflating forever. You know it won’t keep inflating forever. It inflates. You grit your teeth. It inflates. You close your eyes. It inflates…

Then you notice the quiet whine of air escaping from a hole you didn’t realize existed. The balloon is no longer about to burst. It’s still too full, but the air is going somewhere else. It’s escaping in a less violent way. No matter what, the balloon is ruined. But knowing that the ruin is quieter, less dangerous, less explosive, brings with it its own kind of relief.

Jimmy and Kim are deflating. At least, for around 40 minutes of this 41-minute episode that’s the case. The very last development of “Something Stupid” is, true to its title, Kim calling Jimmy to suggest that maybe they won’t do things her way after all. She plugs the hole. We’re immediately in danger of that explosion all over again. You were losing Jimmy anyway, Kim. But you could have let him just…fade away.

“Something Stupid” was the funniest episode of the season so far, but it was also an emotional nightmare.

First, the comedy. Huell was in it, and Huell is, as always, a riot. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if we can have Huell pop up at all without his character defaulting to comic relief.

I’m not complaining, mind you; I don’t believe that Huell has to at some point become a tapestry of quiet desperation. But his increasing presence on the show will necessarily — as it does here — alter the balance between comedy and drama. In this episode we saw the guy flat out assault a plainclothes police officer, and it was funny. If that is going to be played for laughs, what can Huell possibly do that won’t be?

Then, of course, we have to bring Bill Burr back as Kuby. And we have to rehire Francesca so that she can become a comic figure as well. And…yeah, we’re on the slippery slope that reunites us with Saul Goodman as an expressly comic presence.

As opposed, y’know, to the increasingly problematic alter ego of a man who loses himself a little more each week.

Commenter Casey mentioned something in last week’s review that I deliberately chose not to mention in my writeup. Casey discussed the scene in which a relative of one of Jimmy’s elder law clients calls him, informing him that the old woman passed away. Jimmy asks about her, about what he remembers of her family, and about the whereabouts of her Alpine Shepherd Boy Hummel figurine.

“It’s a clear indication that Saul is co-opting what’s good about Jimmy,” wrote Casey. “Jimmy cared so much about these people that he remembers specifics from their wills — information that Saul is ready to pounce on and use for his own ends.”

The reason I held off on talking about it last week is that…well, I wasn’t sure where the show would go with it. And where it would go is what mattered.

By spending a decent chunk of time this season discussing, executing, and celebrating the theft of a Hummel figurine, Better Call Saul deliberately opened the door for us to worry in exactly the same way Casey did. And…well, I worried in that way, too.

But I wanted to wait before bringing it up, because the show could use that conversation to emphasize either of two fully oppositional points. (See again “You do your thing, I’ll do mine.”)

Jimmy’s conversation about the Alpine Shepherd Boy last week could either be a moment that reveals Saul’s co-opting of Jimmy’s positive characteristics, yes, or it could remind us that Jimmy himself — whatever else he’s doing, however far he’s willing to drift from his moral center — is still here. Is still alive. Still has hope.

It all depends on what he does next. Does he ask about the Hummel figurine so that he’ll know where to nab it? Or does he ask because he genuinely feels bad that a client he liked has passed away? The answer will either reveal that Saul is winning the battle for this man’s soul, or that Jimmy is.

Who ultimately wins? We know the answer. But the question of where we are on the map between Jimmy and Saul is the entire focus of this show, and this is an important mile marker.

I’m willing to be proven wrong (THERE IS A FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING) but I think that that conversation gets to stand on its own, a moment in which Jimmy reflects on a path that was once open to him that now has closed itself off just a little bit more.

He’s sad to lose his client. He’s sad to lose that alternate future. He’s sad to lose who he was when he helped — he actually helped — a group of defrauded senior citizens get what was rightfully theirs.

And it’s a chance for us to reflect on all of that as well, and get just as sad about it.

Perhaps that conversation will even turn out to be the last point that we can genuinely identify Jimmy as Jimmy. “Something Stupid” sees him sinking knowingly and willingly into a darker existence. It’s one thing to commit a crime for some extra money, and it’s another to print up business cards with a fake identity and hire protection. One could be the work of a flawed human being headed in the wrong direction. The other is the work of a man establishing a sustainable criminal enterprise.

We even had our scene mirroring Kim’s confession last week. In that episode, she admitted to Jimmy that she’s been secretly acting as a public defender. In this episode, Jimmy admits he’s been selling burner phones to drug dealers.

The gulf between them widens. Yes, they’ve both been keeping secrets. But Kim’s secret was that she was doing good work for people who could benefit from a second chance. Jimmy’s secret is that he was helping criminals avoid the consequences of their crimes.

Every relationship has secrets. In this relationship, though, the secretiveness obscured the fact that one partner was taking steps toward becoming a hero, and the other toward becoming a villain.

And so that hole…that quiet whisper of escaping air…that steady release of pressure…it was important to me.

To many viewers, I’m sure the opening montage of Kim and Jimmy leading very different lives — separated by a vertical line even in the scenes they share — was heartbreaking. To me, it was a fucking relief.

Kim and Jimmy will split up for good. It’s not even a question of when — we’re watching it happen — but rather a question of how.

We’ve seen how characters leave Jimmy’s orbit, and Saul’s orbit. And we’ve seen what happens to characters who stick around.

I didn’t and don’t want any of that for Kim. No matter what, she’s going to get hurt. But Rhea Seehorn plays the character so well that I frequently have trouble viewing her as a character. I view her as a person. Someone I love and care about and want to see happy.

Knowing she has to get hurt, I want it to be a very specific kind of hurt. I want it to be the hurt she’ll experience one morning as she looks over at a sleeping Jimmy and realizes she can do better. I want it to be the hurt she’ll experience when someone calls Jimmy a scumbag and she understands that that’s correct. I want it to be the hurt she’ll experience when she realizes that she’s always going to love this man but he’s never going to be what she needs him to be.

I want that door to close between them and Kim Wexler to move on and do something fucking fantastic with her life. Because she can. So can Jimmy, but Jimmy chooses not to. I don’t want Kim to choose not to. I don’t care if she’s haunted for the rest of her life by thoughts of what could have been. Let her suffer in that way. That is the way I’d prefer her to suffer, because we already know what will be.

And so Kim and Jimmy deflate throughout the course of the episode. Three and a half seasons of inflating toward the breaking point and we arrive at “Something Stupid” which promises that it isn’t too late, that Kim and Jimmy may just drift apart, and whatever he does with his life can become, at long last, irrelevant to what she will do with hers.

Until the end, when she tells him they maybe won’t do things the right way. When she lets him in on some kind of scheme. When she sinks right back down to his level.

It inflates.

She could have gotten out.

It inflates.

He could have done his thing while she did hers.

It inflates.

A fair sentence for Huell — a repeat offender — will instead become something far more complex and infinitely less ethical.

It inflates…

Meanwhile, Mike talks with the German foreman, who tells him there will be one more explosion.

The other explosions happened off-camera, between episodes.

The explosion that’s still to come will happen right there on screen, and we will certainly wish it hadn’t.

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