Better Call Saul Reviews: “Something Unforgivable” (season 5, episode 10)

It’s difficult to judge season finales in serialized shows such as this one on their own merits. You can talk about individual scenes or developments, but unless they actively tie up storylines as opposed to introduce new ones or continue existing ones, you’re left in a sort of narrative limbo.

Some Better Call Saul finales do wrap up storylines, most notably season one’s “Marco.” There, it may have been written with the thought that the show might not get a second season. It didn’t show us Jimmy’s complete transformation into Saul, but it could arguably have showed us enough that we could fill in the blanks. Here, in “Something Unforgivable” (as in the past couple of seasons), the show knows it’s coming back. The writers are able not only to keep their momentum, but to leave things so artfully unresolved that audiences will be left anxious for the next season.

All of which is to say, there’s not much I can discuss from a story standpoint. Last week’s episode brought a number of threads to acceptable ends, even if it did so temporarily. This week was untethered. It could do whatever it wanted to do without having to live with its own consequences. There must have been a giddiness to that writing process. I certainly thought I could feel it.

“Something Unforgivable” follows two main stories, both of which hinge upon their own unforgivable somethings.

For Eduardo, that’s Nacho inviting assassins into his compound and telling them exactly where to find him. Does Eduardo know that this happened? He at least suspects it, and when he sees that the lock on the gate was jimmied (ha ha) from the inside, that will seal it. This represents a massive betrayal, and it’s not as though Eduardo was ever the forgiving kind.

I love Eduardo. Tony Dalton is rivaling Rhea Seehorn as Better Call Saul’s best casting choice, which is all the more impressive since he only joined the show toward the end of season four. The guy is so much fun. He positively bursts with personality, and the show keeps finding new ways to explore his strange, scary playfulness. In this episode, he plays a joke on one of the guards at his compound by pretending to be an intruder himself, only to roll down the window and smile into the barrel of the gun. Funny guy!

We see him with his “family,” with his boss. We see him both at work and at rest. And we see that he’s a bit more wily than we probably believed, leading his own assassins in circles to get the drop on each one of them in turn.

Also, Gus says these assassins are the best in the business. He says this to Mike, the actual best in the business. Mike, who has a sniper rifle and has demonstrated many times that he knows how to use it. Mike, who didn’t get the chance to put a bullet in Eduardo’s head last week and would certainly be more than willing to do it this week.

Gus, you fucking bozo.

The episode ends with Eduardo alive, though Gus will be led to believe he’s dead. This frees him up to set into motion whatever form of revenge he deems fit, and we end “Something Unforgivable” as he stomps away from his compound, pulsing with anger. This is a guy who is dangerous enough when he’s happy.

Then, of course, there’s the Jimmy and Kim plot. Their unforgivable something isn’t done by either to the other, but planned instead for Howard.

If they can erode the confidence Howard’s clients and peers have in him, they decide, they can force an earlier settlement with Sandpiper — remember season one? — and Jimmy will finally get paid for his role in the case. He’ll end up with about two million dollars, splitting it with Kim so that they’ll each have one million.

And here’s the brilliant part: When something happens on this show, we can often flash ahead in our minds to Breaking Bad to know how it pans out. Mike and Saul are lost in the desert? They’ll get home, because they’re alive in Breaking Bad. Nacho wants Hector out of the picture? One way or another he’ll get his wish, because the guy is an invalid by the time of Breaking Bad. Jimmy faces any kind of ethical conundrum whatsoever? He can go either way today, but we know where he’ll land tomorrow.

In this case, though, anything could happen. We don’t know if their big coup will succeed or fail. Either result could fit. We know Kim is gone — however we have to end up defining that word — by Breaking Bad, but that’s it. Is she gone because this attempt on Howard’s career derailed her life? Or was it successful and she took her million dollars to open the law firm she dreams of in this episode? We don’t know. Is Jimmy operating in a strip mall in Breaking Bad because he didn’t get his million, or is he only there because the million allowed him to afford the startup costs? We don’t know.

That’s exciting, and it sets up an unknown battle that can play out in the show’s final season, just as Eduardo storming off does. One might have understandably expected Better Call Saul to become necessarily more predictable as it approached Breaking Bad, but season six — the final season — could well be the least predictable of all.

That’s a good trick.

Speaking of which, we don’t meet Saul in Breaking Bad until season two. That means it’s possible that some of Better Call Saul’s final season could overlap Breaking Bad’s first. After all, Saul mentions Eduardo and Nacho when we meet him in that show, suggesting they’re pretty fresh in his mind. We’ll see.

Otherwise, before we part, just a few tiny observations: Kim turns the finger guns on Jimmy, whereas he turned his on her at the end of season four. Mike argues to Gus that they owe Nacho his freedom, something he wasn’t able to argue for Werner. Jimmy tells Kim that she’ll feel differently when her head clears “in the cold light of day,” a suggestion I made in my review of “Namaste,” proving that the Better Call Saul writing staff reads my reviews and adjusts their plans accordingly.

And, most importantly, Jimmy hammering on Mike’s door just for the guy to drive up behind him and ask him what the hell he’s doing cements these two as the greatest comedic duo of our time.

Scattered thoughts? Certainly and appropriately. “Something Unforgivable” scattered a lot of things. We’ll see how season six, the final season, goes about picking them up.

Thank you once again, sincerely, for taking this trip with me. I’ll see you sometime in 2028 for the final stretch.

Rule of Three: Disco Godfather (1979)

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. At least, that’s what they say. Rudy Ray Moore was never very big, though, and it’s difficult to imagine a fall harder than Disco Godfather.

The movie wasn’t just disappointing; it singlehandedly sunk Moore’s career. It was a movie so bad it seemed expertly designed to dismantle everything Moore had built. It’s a strange product of monumental misjudgment that is almost beyond understanding.

Watching it is a dismal experience. It’s sad and disheartening. Every artist ends up producing garbage at some point, but Disco Godfather is like watching gravity reassert itself, the universe finally realizing Moore had bent the rules and now must be punished. If that sounds overly dramatic, so be it; I’m talking about Disco Godfather, and “overly dramatic” is the nicest thing anyone can possibly say about this movie.

With Dolemite, Moore left his stamp on the action film. With Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law, he left his stamp on the horror film. Here, in Disco Godfather, he attempts to leave his stamp on a drama.

Until this point, Moore had the golden touch, transforming a number of bad ideas into successful endeavors, so nobody can really blame him for thinking he might have been able to do the same with Disco Godfather.

The difference is that Moore’s sense of humor, innate charm, and hammy performances work damn well when paired with action or horror, two genres audiences often turn to for a good time. Audiences don’t turn to drama when they want a fun night out, making Moore a distractingly poor fit for the film. It doesn’t help that Disco Godfather was essentially Moore’s then-modern retelling of Reefer Madness.

To be completely fair to Moore and to everyone else who worked on the film, PCP / angel dust / wack (the film calls it by all three names) is bad. I think we can all agree on that. Whereas the hysteria over marijuana was largely misplaced and mishandled, I don’t think many of us reading this would feel comfortable learning that a friend or family member were a regular user of PCP.

There’s nothing wrong, then, with framing the drug as A Bad Thing within the context of a film. What is bad — what demonstrably turned out to be bad — is building approaching it with all of the intelligence and nuance of Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.

It’s also at least a little embarrassing that Disco Godfather attempts to ride the momentum of a scene that was already well into decline by 1979. It’s not the sort of thing folks will recognize as easily today (if something is set in the 1970s, disco is fair — and almost necessary — game), but when a reporter visits The Disco Godfather to discuss “the disco dance craze, you know, why it’s happening,” well after disco’s peak, it had to strike audiences as being embarrassingly out of touch.

Moore, of course, plays The Disco Godfather himself. If there’s one genre of music Rudy Ray Moore is the least associated with, it’s got to be Bavarian zither folk. But disco would certainly be a close second.

It’s genuinely sad to watch Moore pretend he has any interest in disco whatsoever, a mere five years after he bucked every trend imaginable for Dolemite. Moore was always chasing his own vision; Disco Godfather forces him to chase one he can’t possibly have shared.

And though he tried — God bless him, he did try — no kind of love or enthusiasm for the material comes through. Even during his trademark rhyming monologues, the music drowns him out. Whether that’s due to terrible audio mixing or an uncommonly muted delivery by Moore, we can read a hell of a lot into that.

Before I get too far into this, let me say one thing clearly: I love disco. My criticism of Disco Godfather isn’t some way to score cheap laughs by swinging at a universal punching bag.

I wouldn’t dare say disco is good music, but it’s fun. It makes me feel good. It’s danceable. It’s light and often silly but it also has this driving, irresistible quality that can bring me up no matter how low I’m feeling.

In fact, before watching it, I expected to adore Disco Godfather. Rudy Ray Moore and disco? Sign me the fuck up.

It’s not that I went into this film with a closed mind. I did something far worse: I went into it ready to be entertained.

Disco Godfather begins with a sequence it repeats with minor variations regularly throughout the film: extras disco dance for minutes on end.

They’re at Blueberry Hill, a dance club run by The Disco Godfather. It’s the hottest disco around, as I’m sure we’d expect from one named after a song that was nearly 40 years older than disco. We’re led to believe that The Disco Godfather himself is the main draw, and that’s fine, but I’m not really sure how that can be true.

Admittedly, Moore is a showman, and both Dolemite and Petey Wheatstraw understandably drew upon that talent to position him as the main draw for the central clubs in those films as well. Disco Godfather doing the same thing is perfectly reasonable on paper, but a disco is a very different kind of club. It’s loud. People dance. They pay attention to each other, to the groove, to the drugs that are passed around. In the previous movies we discussed, patrons would pay to sit down and watch a show. In this movie, the patrons are the show.

Disco Godfather must realize this on some level; it knows nobody is paying attention to Moore reciting his rhyming monologues as irrelevant disco beats drown him out. But the film wants us to believe the entire reason folks flock to Blueberry Hill is for these very performances they can’t possibly even hear.

The film could, of course, actively paint Moore’s character as the relic of a bygone age; clubs have evolved to the point that his particular brand of performance might still be respected but is no longer embraced. Moore might still have talent, but audiences have moved on.

That would be a sad story, but not as sad as Disco Godfather, which unwittingly paints him as exactly that kind of relic while asking us not to acknowledge it. Instead of telling us Moore has lost touch, it shows us instead. It’s a more convincing and damning argument than a script written around the idea could have ever been.

On this particular evening, The Disco Godfather’s nephew, Bucky, goes outside to kiss his girlfriend. His friend is also outside. His girlfriend tells Bucky not to smoke angel dust. His friend tells Bucky to smoke angel dust. Bucky smokes angel dust.

We don’t see him smoke it; instead we see his girlfriend storm back into the club, screaming and weeping to an extent that makes it seem like Bucky must have been killed in a drive-by shooting. She rushes up to The Disco Godfather, who halts his set immediately — and understandably — to find out what’s wrong.

What’s wrong is that Bucky smoked angel dust. The Disco Godfather tells the girl to call an ambulance.

Bucky — out of his mind on PCP — stumbles into the club, has visions, runs out of the club, and is indeed taken away by an ambulance. This is tragic, certainly, but the overacting makes it feel like he’s being taken away by a coroner instead.

Bucky’s visions are the first of many we’ll see in the film; they all take place in a black void with very minimal lighting shining on the characters or monsters we’re meant to pay attention to. The lighting is a bit less red, which is the only thing that differentiates these scenes from the Hell sequences in Petey Wheatstraw. When the drama we’re supposed to take seriously is shot exactly like the horror comedy we were meant to laugh at, there’s a problem.

The Disco Godfather is upset. Bucky has a promising basketball career, but injures his hand in some unexplained way during his angel dust hallucinations, so he won’t be able to play. He’s visited many times during his long recovery by The Disco Godfather — or, in this case, his Disco Uncle — and Dr. Mathis.

Mathis is played by Moore’s regular collaborator Jerry Jones, who we remember from Dolemite both as FBI Agent Blakely and the screenwriter.

Honestly, he’s one of the few actors who acquits himself well enough in Disco Godfather. In the midst of the histrionics, he manages to stay relatively reserved. That may well be down to a lack of range in his acting — we’ve only ever seen him reserved — but it works wonders here to make Dr. Mathis feel like the lone human amongst the Muppets.

His role consists of little other than delivering exposition and the requisite Bad News to the families of his patients. It’s a role that exists entirely for the sake of its own function, but it’s not Jones’ fault that someone needs to spur The Disco Godfather into action.

“Haven’t you heard, Godfather?” he asks The Disco Godfather. “Our children are dying.” And with that, The Disco Godfather sets about a tried-and-true Rudy Ray Moore objective: cleaning up the streets.

It’s hardly surprising that if Moore were to make a message movie, this would be the message. Dolemite and Petey Wheatstraw might have had some muddled moralities, but it was clear that Moore saw the spread of drugs, the influence of pushers, and the frequency of violence as serious issues in impoverished communities.

What’s more, Moore was no fool; he was fully aware of the fact that Dolemite gunning down corrupt cops and Petey sending winos to Hell were not actions compatible with what he’d see as true social progress, and that was okay. He was making movies that were primarily fun.

Disco Godfather is no fun at all, because — like Dr. Mathis — it exists for the sake of its own function. It’s preachy and didactic. Rudy Ray Moore running a disco could have been a raucous, farcical delight. But for the message to come through — for the morality to remain unmuddled — it had to be direct and sincere. It couldn’t be something people might think about when they were done laughing; it had to be something they’d think about during every second of the film and think about even more deeply every second afterward.

All of which would have been fine for a commercial-break PSA featuring Moore, but it makes for one hell of a dismal film.

What’s even stranger — or more disappointing, depending upon your perspective — is the way in which his character goes about cleaning up the streets.

In Dolemite, he ripped the guts out of a pusher with his bare hands. In Petey Wheatstraw, he waved his magical pimp cane. These are two things that are very easy to associate with Moore and the persona he crafted for himself.

In Disco Godfather, he does probably the last thing we’d associate with Moore’s persona: He goes to the police.

There are a few layers to this incongruity, but at the very least it seems to be a pretty passive way of dealing with the problem. Part of Moore’s appeal — both on screen and off — was his willingness to buck the system, to find his own solutions to problems, to, in a word, Get Shit Done.

That’s part of what makes us love characters, heroes and scoundrels alike. We enjoy and appreciate their inventiveness and their dedication to accomplishing whatever it is they’d like to accomplish. In fact, the journey toward that very accomplishment often defines who they are.

For The Disco Godfather to stroll into a police station and say, “I would like some cops to fix this problem, please,” is to dissolve every reason anybody would have wanted to watch a Rudy Ray Moore movie.

There’s more to it than that, I admit, but the complication is one that far from works in the film’s favor.

See, we learn that The Disco Godfather used to be a cop. A great cop, actually, who retired to run a disco for God knows what reason. Maybe because it’s always been his dream to recite rhyming monologues behind music too loud for anyone to hear him.

In a way, this is good; The Disco Godfather gets permission to work with his old colleagues, keeping him involved in the action and — potentially — the problem’s resolution. In another way, Rudy Ray Moore isn’t just scampering for help from the police; he is the police.

This is what I mean by Disco Godfather feeling like it was specifically dismantling anything people liked about Moore. The man who famously spat in the face of the establishment was suddenly part of that establishment. It was essentially like Moore breaking character at the end of an incendiary comedy routine to say to the audience, “We’ve all had a lot of fun here tonight, folks, but, please, let’s remember that the boys in blue are our friends and they deserve nothing less than our deepest respect.”

It’s not something Moore’s audience would appreciate, which is why Disco Godfather ended up having no audience.

The film worked overtime to position the energetic upstart Moore as a crusty representative of the old guard. It’s strange and disorienting. For how out of touch it wanted Moore to seem, the film probably should have been called Disco Grandfather.

The PCP is being manufactured and distributed via a system run by Stinger Ray (Hawthorne James in the first of what would be many, many film roles to follow, making his career perhaps the only positive thing to come out of this fiasco). On the surface, Ray is a…sports entrepreneur, for lack of a better term? He’s in the public eye for founding a basketball team (“The Stingrays, of course!”) consisting entirely of players who were turned down by the NBA.

“You take a guy who’s played ball most of his life,” Ray says to a reporter. “He’s going to be hungry. If he can’t make the NBA, he’s going to be mad and hungry. With my new team, the objective is to pick up those guys. I can’t lose.”

…which does make a kind of sense but really doesn’t separate The Stingrays from any other team. Don’t all teams take the best players they can get? Aren’t those players often only available because other teams have passed them up?

That’s just a bit of faulty logic, which any film will have, and it’s washed away beneath a much larger, much more idiotic example of narrative confusion: Why would Stinger Ray want to flood with drugs the very streets from which he hopes to draw his basketball talent? This isn’t one of those “hey waitaminute…” realizations you’ll only have later; it’s an explicit plot point in the film.

It’s Ray who is supplying the PCP to Bucky. Bucky, the promising young basketball star who can’t play because he’s so strung out on PCP he can’t get out of bed at the hospital.

What is Ray’s endgame? Does he prefer the money he makes from the drugs to the money he could be making from his basketball team? If so, why put himself in the public eye by owning a basketball team at all? And if not, why bother with the drugs?

The answer can’t be “he wants both,” because one is explicitly being held back by the other. He can’t have a team of overlooked superstar basketballers and a team of braindead PCP zombies. I guess I should admire Ray’s willingness to diversify, but it really seems like he hasn’t thought any of this through.

All of this makes him seem like far more of a boob than this movie needs him to seem. Stinger Ray is meant to stand as the first genuine threat in a Rudy Ray Moore movie. That’s an honor not even Satan himself was granted. For once, the question wasn’t “How is Moore going to kick this guy’s ass?” Now it was, “This guy is so scary and so powerful and such an imposing figure, can Moore do anything at all?”

All while Disco Godfather makes it hard for anyone to believe this guy even knows how to tie his shoes.

In addition to the clubs, drugs, street cleaning, and rhyming monologues, we also get two other Rudy Ray Moore hallmarks: kung fu and womanizing. The kung fu doesn’t seem to be shot nearly as well as it was in Petey Wheatstraw — which is saying something — but in keeping with tearing down Moore’s image, The Disco Godfather doesn’t seem to be all that good at fighting, being easily overpowered by two goons disguised as telephone repairmen.

It’s more realistic, sure — even somebody with training would likely find himself beaten by two men who got the drop on him — but it’s much less fun.

Ditto the womanizing. Here, his lone conquest is Noel, played by Carol Speed. She’s neither a bad character nor a bad actor, but she certainly doesn’t leave an impression. The sex scene also just involves Moore thrusting on top of her in a flat angle; it’s a far cry from the room-destroying intercourse of The Human Tornado or the fast-motion carnal buffet of Petey Wheatstraw.

More realistic, again, sure, but no human being wanted to see a “realistic” Rudy Ray Moore film. All it does is rob the man of his particular magic, leaving him exposed, floundering in the light.

There’s even a scene in which Moore interacts with kids that seems like a direct response to one in Petey Wheatstraw. In that film he found some kids who were too distracted by the game they were playing to realize they were in danger of being run over. Petey defuses the situation but gives them (at least partially) deserved guff for their carelessness. He then combs the hair of one of them until the kid cries.

Here, he encounters kids equally distracted by their game of jacks. He offers them a quarter if they can pick up all of the jacks at once. The kids ignore him and do everything short of saying “fuck off.” He pays them anyway, and the kids run away. “Kids is a lot of fun, ain’t they, man?” he says afterward, without a hint of irony.

The Disco Godfather intermittently sets about tracking down the source of the PCP. It involves a puzzling assassination attempt at Blueberry Hill, which sees the thugs gunned down by the cops, only The Disco Godfather knows they aren’t real cops, and then the real cops do show up for some reason and arrest The Disco Godfather for having nothing to do with the assassination attempt, I guess, and later we find out the fake cops were working with the thugs?

I have no idea, in short, why the people working together to kill The Disco Godfather would instead kill each other or why the people working with The Disco Godfather to catch the bad guys would arrest him for literally doing nothing other than spinning records while the bad guys shot each other.

I’m starting to believe this movie wasn’t especially well thought out!

The Disco Godfather talks with Dr. Mathis, who walks him through a clinic of patients destroyed by PCP. They’re actors who mumble to themselves and make faces while Dr. Mathis tells horrific tales of what they’ve done to themselves and others.

One woman holding a doll was preparing dinner for her family while blitzed on angel dust. She heard the ham crying, so she cooked it…only it was actually her baby! You know; the cautionary tale we all heard growing up, told to us by someone who knew someone whose neighbor’s distant relative did exactly that.

It’s also something that has never happened in the history of mankind. For such a realistic film, couldn’t Disco Godfather have given us a more relatable — or at least less clearly fabricated — example of how a parent might harm or kill a child while under the influence?

Driving while intoxicated. Falling asleep with a cigarette in their mouth. Shaking a baby that won’t stop crying. Falling down the stairs while holding the kid. Passing out on the floor while Little Johnny finds his way into the cleaning products and drinks some bleach.

Disco Godfather, I’m trying to say, has its heart in the right place. If it wants to tell a story about how drugs ruin lives, go for it. But at show how drugs do ruin lives, and don’t resort to dramatic reenactments of dead-eyed women serving roast baby at Thanksgiving dinner.

Elsewhere in the film Dr. Mathis and the reporter who is excited about this whole up-and-coming disco thing speak at an “Attack the Wack” anti-drug rally. It serves no narrative purpose, isn’t funny, isn’t interesting, sheds no additional light on anything we know, and doesn’t advance the plot. It’s an anti-drug screed embedded in what’s already a feature-length anti-drug screed.

The Disco Godfather pays a visit to Bob, a kindly old teacher who may have some information on how to track down the head dealer. I just watched the movie and already can’t remember if Bob told our hero anything useful; he exists only so the drug dealers can murder him as a warning to The Disco Godfather.

Also, The Disco Godfather buys Bob a dog so that the drug dealers can also murder the dog as a warning to The Disco Godfather.

Also, instead of killing all these things as warnings to The Disco Godfather you’d think they’d just go ahead and kill The Disco Godfather, but what do I know?

Ultimately, our obsolete hero manages to track down Stinger Ray. Or, rather, he’s captured by Stinger Ray’s goons, including a cartoon cowboy.

The Disco Godfather defeats him, and then defeats a bunch of other people, too, with the help of a passing jogger.

“What’s happening man, you need some help?” the jogger asks. “This is an angel dust factory,” replies The Disco Godfather. The jogger says, “Angel dust?!” then immediately tears off his shirt and starts beating up the bad guys.

I’m about 60% sure this was a deliberate joke. I’m 100% sure it’s the funniest thing in the movie.

The Disco Godfather then does what he does best: nothing. He gets knocked out and tied to a chair, where a gas mask is fitted over his face and pumped full of PCP. As another warning, I guess.

Again, this entire film has consisted of nothing but opportunities to murder The Disco Godfather, but the guys who want him dead don’t seem to realize that.

He overpowers his captors and gets the mask off, but not before…y’know…breathing. Which means the entire final sequence is the most embarrassingly dramatized drug trip in motion-picture history.

The Disco Godfather sees a demon — the same demon other PCP users see, so I guess she’s real — and also his mother, for no reason except so that she can turn into the demon. Then he finds Stringer Ray and beats him up while actual cartoons are drawn over the image in a way that somebody, somewhere, at some point, must have believed would be…

…scary? Effective? Interesting? I honestly have no clue what they were going for here, but I’m confident in saying they didn’t achieve it.

Then Bucky shows up, because while we weren’t looking he recovered from his injuries and kicked his PCP habit. But he sees that The Disco Godfather is in the thralls of an angel dust trip and he screams and the movie ends.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: Petey Wheatstraw also ended on a freeze frame of a screaming Moore, but that was a comedy with a story. The freeze frame on Petey’s realization that he’s going to Hell was both an ending and a punchline.

Here, it’s just the last bit of film on the reel. Nothing about The Disco Godfather being interrupted mid-trip has anything to do with what we’ve seen. Not narratively, not thematically, not emotionally. It has nothing to do with his character or anybody else’s character. It’s not affecting or worrying or frightening. It feels like the movie literally saying, “Okay, that’s it; we are done making Disco Godfather.”

And if that’s what it is, then that’s honestly the best creative choice made by Disco Godfather.

I get that drugs “winning” in the end is what matters. However much the police push back, however much citizens do their part, however many Disco Godfather movies we make, drugs will remain a serious threat. They shouldn’t be trivialized, the movie believes, and that’s okay. That’s a valid perspective.

But we don’t see drugs “win.” We see one character who has no interest in them caught in a hallucination. He’ll go to the hospital just like Bucky did — Dr. Mathis is even here already — and he’ll be given a safe space to recover. The Disco Godfather isn’t hooked on drugs. The Disco Godfather hasn’t baked any babies. The Disco Godfather won’t start pushing angel dust on kids.

He’s just a man whose story artificially ends in a moment of temporary difficulty. The audience isn’t left asking, “What happens next?” It’s left asking, “Why did this movie happen at all?”

The Disco Godfather — like the movie named after him — ends on a low point. It didn’t have to, but it does.

And that’s also where it left Rudy Ray Moore.

He appeared in a few other films, but never again would he have the creative control he once managed to seize when nobody was looking. Often he was relegated to winking cameos, either playing or channeling Dolemite. He was like Bob Denver, turning up whenever somebody needed a Gilligan because that’s all anybody would pay him for.

In 2002, long after any kind of comeback stood a chance, Moore starred in The Return of Dolemite. He was in his mid-70s by this time and spent as much of the film as possible sitting in chairs. In 2008, he passed away at the age of 81.

For a man of such natural drive and charisma, for the underdog who consistently dreamed big and held onto ambitions long after saner men would have given up, this must have been agony.

Moore had managed it once. He’d reached for the stars and actually plucked one of them out of the sky. Surely, he must have thought in the almost three decades between the film that killed his career and the day he died, he’d be able to do it again.

Interviews leading up to The Return of Dolemite (retitled The Dolemite Explosion for home media, for reasons I cannot fathom) saw Moore feeling optimistic. He was excited. He believed the movie would be good and he did his best not to spoil any of the fun ahead of time. He wanted people to go see it in theaters and roar with appreciation the way they had when they’d seen the first Dolemite.

But that audience had moved on, and Moore never found a new one. The movie quietly drifted into and out of theaters, and that was that. Moore must have known on some level that his career had ended, but the failure of The Return of Dolemite made it clear that his career was never coming back.

I’d love to tell you Disco Godfather is better than its reputation suggests. I’d love to tell you it’s a hidden gem. I’d love to tell you there are enough worthwhile moments to justify watching it at least once.

I can’t do that, and that’s the frustrating thing. Somebody like Moore really should have spent his last true moment in the spotlight doing everything he did best. It should have been something we could look at in retrospect and realize was ahead of its time, or artistically daring, or at least ambitious.

But it’s not. Nothing about the film works, and nothing about the film seems like it could have worked.

Disco Godfather did the impossible; it made Rudy Ray Moore seem disposable. It broke the spell that had elevated the man above his station, and it wasn’t even a movie that was worth the gamble. Moore spent his life assuring the world he’d have something to say if only they’d listen, and then they did listen and he gave them Disco Godfather. They weren’t going to listen again.

His earlier films are worth revisiting. Moore was a singular talent, the likes of whom don’t come about often and are given a platform even more rarely. He was crude and ridiculous and deeply fucking lovable, and he did what every single person reading this review (and the guy writing it) wish they could do: He dreamed up a perfect world for himself, and then brought it to life.

Disco Godfather is easy enough to ignore. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he made this film rather than literally anything else.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Bad Choice Road” (season 5, episode 9)

First of all, kudos to “Bad Choice Road” for actually ending. Eduardo showing up at Jimmy’s door must have been a very tempting “Executive Producer: Vince Gilligan” moment, but we got to see the entirety of the confrontation that followed. I know I praised “Bagman” for withholding the ending of its story, and I stand by that as being the correct decision, but it’s not something this or any show should do weekly.

It’s tempting to talk about nothing but that ending, but I’ll try to hold off as long as I can.

The rest of the episode was pretty good. Not great, but after “Bagman” I think any episode would have difficulty looking great.

We got a lovely opening sequence showing the contrast between Jimmy and Kim — at least for now — set to a hummed version of “Something Stupid.” Which I found hilarious, because saying “I love you” can’t even register on the stupidity scale for Jimmy anymore.

Then we’re back. Eduardo gets his bail, Jimmy gets his money. It’s not an easy return to normalcy but it’s a necessary one and it’s going to happen. The most interesting thing for me is something the episode didn’t fully explore: Jimmy’s PTSD.

“Bagman” introduced and explored it a bit, we got some flashes of it here and had a great conversation with Mike (“I can’t believe there’s, like, over a billion people on this planet and the only person I have to talk about this to is you.”), but not much else. That’s okay; later episodes may explore it. At the very least, the day Jimmy wakes up and goes about his routine and realizes he hasn’t thought about it will be a crucial, possibly final step on his journey to becoming Saul Goodman full time.

Jimmy quickly breaks his oath of honesty to Kim, which he believes he’s doing to protect her. I think he has a good argument there, but it’s an important moment. Ditto Kim letting him withhold the truth. She tells him that she knows he’s lying, and that’s it. She doesn’t press him. Even during the ending — when she has a valid and well-deserved reason to press him — she doesn’t. He broke his promise and she let him do it. That’s important.

Does she need his protection, though? Jimmy lashes out at her when he learns she visited Eduardo in jail, because it puts her in danger. He’s proven correct when Eduardo shows up at their apartment late in the episode. But, in the end, it’s she who is protecting Jimmy.

See, here’s the thing. We’ve seen Jimmy working criminals before, but he’s usually in a position of some kind of control. Not always, but usually. He has his confidence, his wit, and his charm to fall back on. He’s within reasonable distance of having the upper hand. Here, though, with Eduardo literally breathing down his neck, he flounders. He stumbles. He can’t come up with any kind of way to gain control of the situation and he talks himself uselessly in circles.

That’s important, too. Jimmy can’t immerse himself in the criminal underworld if this is the way he deals with implicit threats. Saul Goodman, as we’ve seen in Breaking Bad, is much better at it. So what gets Jimmy to Saul in this regard? What helps him evolve from a frightened victim to one who can at least maintain the illusion of control?

We might have seen it. If he were paying attention, Kim just showed him how to do it. You push back. You don’t allow them to intimidate you. You force them back into line.

And that confrontation — between Kim and Eduardo — was Better Call Saul’s clash of the titans. The show’s two best actors and most interesting characters staring each other down, while Jimmy stands silently, letting the consequences of his actions unfold (and possibly resolve) without him. He goes from being a target to a bystander as Kim fights his battle for him.

What a battle, too. I’ve spoken about Eduardo before, regarding the way he upsets the unspoken rules of the game. He’s frequently given answers that are meant to shut down further questioning, and he questions further anyway. He speaks openly about that which everyone would prefer he’d remain quiet. He refuses to accept that the answer he gets is the only answer he can get. And he does it all with a big, goofy smile and an undying flair that keeps everyone off guard. He’s not an idiot, but he can play off his breaking of the rules as though he were one.

We see it a few times in this episode, from personally checking the veracity of Jimmy’s car-trouble story to disregarding the aide in the nursing home who wants to bring Hector into a birthday celebration. (The sight gag of the aging kingpin in a party hat was marvelous.) And then, of course, with his tapping on the fishtank.

That’s who Eduardo is, in one sentence. Eduardo is the guy who taps on the fishtank.

He knows he isn’t supposed to do it, and he does it anyway. He knows that tapping on the fishtank gets a response. Maybe it’s a negative one, sure, but it’s a response, and that’s more than he would get if he didn’t tap. Everyone around him silently agrees not to tap the fishtank. That’s fine for them. He’s the one who taps anyway.

Kim is the only one so far who doesn’t take that shit.

We’ve seen Eduardo bend powerful men when he breaks the rules. He’s given an answer. He asks for more. He’s told the same thing. He asks for more again. He gets more.

It’s Kim who wrangles him, and she does it so successfully and unexpectedly that he’s left speechless. Eduardo is not a man left easily speechless. He’s met his match, at least for now. He doesn’t like it, but I think there’s some degree of actual respect there. How do I know? Because he doesn’t pretend to have respect. He doesn’t toss off an, “I like this one!” or a, “She’s feisty,” sort of platitude.

He shuts his fucking mouth and walks out the door. No stomping. No slamming.

He gives Kim what she wants. He leaves without incident.

At least, once again, for now.

This would have been, I think, a pretty decent season finale, but there’s still one episode to go. That’s good news, precisely because I don’t know what to expect.

“Bad Choice Road” leaves these characters at what I think are perfect, clean, end-of-season terminal points. Eduardo is free and heading to Mexico. Nacho is still trapped, and Gus makes a genuinely good argument for keeping him there. Mike reveals himself once again to be a big softie, which never, ever ends well. Jimmy is freed from facing repercussion for what he’s done. Kim is back to pro bono work and has established herself as the show’s secret badass.

This is where the next story for each of them can begin.

But the show still has one last set of curveballs to throw us. These are just endings…for now.

I have no idea what to expect, but Better Call Saul didn’t give us a series of false endings here for nothing. It did it for what I’m confident was a very good reason. I’m excited and anxious to learn what that will turn out to be.

Rule of Three: Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)

Rudy Ray Moore will always be remembered for Dolemite, but his crowning achievement is without question Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law.

Everything about Petey Wheatstraw represents an improvement over Dolemite, and often a substantial one. It’s smarter and funnier. The acting, writing, casting, blocking, pacing, and fight choreography are much better. Whereas Dolemite felt like a vanity project — which it was, even if it was a more inclusive one than most — Petey Wheatstraw feels like a movie.

Not just a movie, either; it’s a genuinely good movie. Moments approach greatness. Its laughs are almost uniformly genuine. I don’t have any specific insight into Rudy Ray Moore, but I’d be shocked to my core if I found out he had been upset at any point that people had laughed at Dolemite instead of laughing with it. I honestly get the sense he would have still considered that to be a kind of success.

Moore never took himself too seriously. If he caught somebody chuckling at the sight of his beer gut poking out from under his shirt during what was meant to be an exciting kung-fu sequence, I think he still would have been proud of himself. He brought joy to somebody. Maybe not the precise flavor of joy he had intended, but he made somebody’s day that much brighter.

Am I waxing romantic? Maybe, but it’s not without reason. Early in Petey Wheatstraw, our protagonist, as a child, does the same. He confides to his elderly mentor that he wants to grow up and become a comedian. It’s important to him and, he believes, to the world.

“I always wanted to be on stage, making people laugh,” he tells the old man. “So I can try and save the world from some of its misery.” Like Rudy Ray Moore himself, young Petey sees comedy as a noble calling. Let’s be completely fair to the boy: He’s right.

Every human being loves to laugh, and not every human being has the gift of making others laugh. Moore had it, and he knew he did. It was his obligation, therefore, to put it in front of as many people as possible. On stage, on record, on screen. However he could reach those who needed the laughs he could give them, it was his job to do it. The best part? The guy loved his job.

Petey Wheatstraw is an hour and a half of a man loving his job. It’s a horror comedy with a firm moral lesson that Moore as Petey stubbornly refuses to learn. He makes a deal with The Devil, reaps the benefits, and spends the rest of the film trying to outwit Old Scratch. It’s the barest sketch of a plot, but it’s more than enough to get us to a lot of funny places and a few pretty surprising ones.

The film opens with an adult Petey Wheatstraw addressing the audience directly. He is going to tell us his story, beginning with the night of his birth, in Miami, during a devastating storm.

Moore’s opening, rhyming monologue suggests that we’ll be in familiar Dolemite territory, but with the exception of a few hallmarks, we will not be. The birthing scene that follows makes that very clear.

Petey’s mother, wracked with pain, is in her bed, calling out for a doctor who hasn’t yet arrived. She’s comically huge; when the doctor shows up, he asks if she’s pregnant with an elephant.

The scene feels like an isolated comedy skit, and that’s exactly how it plays out. The woman gives birth to a watermelon. Petey bites the doctor as he tries to deliver him. Petey emerges as what looks like a 10-year-old boy and beats up the doctor for spanking him. He then attacks his father for “stabbing” him every night in his sleep.

There’s a setup, then a mix of punchlines, visual gags, and physical comedy. The scene doesn’t last any longer than it needs to and it ends the moment it runs out of jokes. It’s exactly something you might see in a sketch comedy show — though it would have had to be a pretty daring one for the time — and we’re told everything we need to know about Petey Wheatstraw: You’re meant first and foremost to laugh. Don’t take anything too seriously. The film’s logic is its own.

All good lessons, but there’s one more you might not notice as easily. See, as overtly comic as the scene is, and as much of a comedian as this film’s leading man is, Moore doesn’t appear in this sequence.

There’s no reason he couldn’t. He could have easily played his own father. He could even have played Petey. (The boy is already not an infant at birth; he could just as easily have been birthed as a full-grown, smack-talking smartass with incredible facial hair.) Instead, Moore lets other people have the spotlight. He opens his best movie by letting others get all of the laughs, on their own.

We saw a bit of this disarming selflessness in Dolemite, and we’ll see much more of it here. Moore was becoming more comfortable handing the reins over to others, giving them longer spotlights, letting them share their own noble callings with whoever needed to see them. The best part, though, is that it never feels like we’re getting less Moore. Petey Wheatstraw is still a Rudy Ray Moore film, and we’re never more than a few minutes away from the man himself working his magic.

As Petey grows, he finds himself having to fight to survive in a rough neighborhood. That’s one of Moore’s hallmarks; I can’t say how much of it he might have drawn from his own life, but the idea of a community being willfully shitty clearly fascinated him. He had to be busted out of jail in Dolemite to restore order. Later in Petey Wheatstraw, our hero has his car torn apart by junkies. In Disco Godfather he…well, you’ll see.

Here, an old man sees a spunky but unskilled Petey lose a fight. He takes the boy on as a protégé and teaches him another Moore hallmark: kung-fu.

And this, silly as it may seem, is actually important. Moore did plenty of kung-fu in Dolemite and The Human Tornado, but it was clear that he had no idea what he was doing. Last week I pointed out that the fight scenes weren’t shot well, either, but I can’t fault director D’Urville Martin too much for that. Was it worth shooting them well? (The fantastic Dolemite is My Name, with Wesley Snipes as Martin, answers this with one of the film’s best jokes.)

At some point, perhaps gradually since his first film, Moore must have actually learned kung-fu. That’s not to say he’s any kind of master by the time of Petey Wheatstraw, but he’s improved noticeably. He’s studied it, practiced it, or at least taken a crash course in it, because he looks more competent and comfortable with it throughout.

As such, the cinematography rises to meet him. We’re no longer watching a comedian floundering his way through an action scene; we’re watching an action scene. Moore and writer/director Cliff Roquemore let us know up front that Petey has received martial arts training, not because it’s necessary to know but because it was worth drawing attention to just how much better at it Moore would be during this film.

When we catch up to Petey in his adult years, we find that he has indeed achieved his dream of being a much-loved comedian. Unlike Dolemite, he’s an insult comedian. This sets him apart to some degree from that character, as biting, spontaneous personal barbs are a much different artform from recitations of long, profane poetry, but I do admit it’s pretty funny to find out that Petey’s dream of making people happier is fulfilled by having him professionally insult them. I don’t think that’s an intentional joke on the part of the film, but it’s amusing anyway.

Petey is so accomplished in his craft that the mere fact that he schedules a show sends the owners of a rival club — another Moore staple — into a panic. This time it’s because Leroy and Skillet — a real-life comic duo Moore turns over several spotlights to — have taken a $100,000 investment from Mr. White. The idea was that they would use the money to book incredible acts during the down season, when they wouldn’t have any competition. As the only game in town and with acts worth seeing, they’d pack the house every night and make themselves and Mr. White a lot of money.

Then Petey Wheatstraw books a gig the very day after Leroy and Skillet are set to open, and this is a problem. Mr. White alluded to severe consequences if his investment didn’t pay off, and violence was likely the very least of these.

So far, so sedate. And to the credit of Leroy and Skillet, they do call Petey and ask him politely to delay his gig. Petey refuses to do so, which is understandable, but which also inspires his adversaries to take more drastic measures.

The pair hires a few goons to rough up Ted, one of Petey’s friends. Things don’t go quite as expected, as Ted’s kid brother Larry is there for the confrontation and refuses to leave. With the situation now overcomplicated, one of the goons pulls a gun on Ted.

Little Larry saves his big brother by taking the bullet instead. The thugs flee. The neighbors call an ambulance. Larry dies on the lawn.

It’s a dramatic scene which doesn’t quite seem to fit…and, hey, it doesn’t. I’ll admit that. But I do think the tonal shift is deliberate and important. This isn’t the graceless tonal whiplash of a Medea film; this is a comedy that is about to give its freewheeling hero a reason to get serious.

The death of Larry isn’t played for laughs, and Ted — played by Ted Clemmons — is legitimately emotional here.

The scene ends and the drama doesn’t let up. We see Larry’s casket being carried out of his funeral service. The boy’s grieving friends and family descend the church steps. It’s a powerful sequence. Everything here is grounded, real, and effective.

The thugs return. Sure, killing Larry sent a message, but it didn’t solve the central problem: Petey Wheatstraw is still in the way.

They open fire on Petey, striking him several times and hitting a number of mourners as well.

They drop the casket. Bodies fall. Others curl up and hope for the best, unable to take cover from this major tragedy as they were still processing another.

It’s real. It’s rough. That tonal shift was serious; it wasn’t one misjudged scene. It was deliberate, and now things are getting worse.

Then everything freezes. The dead, the dying, and the disoriented stop wherever they are. Clothing still ripples in the breeze, but nobody is moving or can move.

And a man strolls into frame.

He notices the devastation around him, is aware of what happened, but isn’t upset. He steps calmly around the bodies until he reaches Petey, who he restores to life. He offers Petey an opportunity to rewind time. To prevent this. To save himself and the people he loves.

It’s important that Petey makes his literal deal with The Devil over something like this and not, say, fame or fortune. We need to like Petey. We need to stay on his side, even as he does something as clearly foolish as shaking hands with the Father of Lies. Had Petey dabbled with darkness for his own gain, it would be pretty easy to dismiss anything that happened afterward as being well deserved. Instead, his bad decision becomes one that’s pretty damned understandable.

In that moment, wouldn’t you give anything to turn back the clock?

We’re eased back into the comedy, which is wise. This is not the time for a pie in the face; we’ll need to build back up to that. The man hands Petey a business card, which Petey reads.

“Lou Cypher?” asks Petey. “A small mistake on the part of the printer,” replies the man, masterfully undercutting the joke in a way that makes it much funnier.

I do need to take a moment here to say just how much I love G. Tito Shaw in this role. He immediately became one of my all-time favorite portrayals of Satan on film. Shaw didn’t go on to do anything else; this is, at least, his only credit on IMDb, which seems positively criminal. He is a fantastic Satan, and he manages to be one without ever slipping into overdone territory.

Shaw’s Satan is both affable and cold, shifting from one to the other in the space between two lines of dialogue. He’s a frightening presence when he wants to be, but as you can tell from the screengrabs he can’t rely on physical intimidation. Which is fine. He’s Satan. Satan isn’t scary because he can beat you up; Satan is scary because he can seal you into an eternity of torment.

And so Satan in this film doesn’t rely much on threats. He doesn’t need to. As much as threats might scare us, Petey Wheatstraw understands that the promises should be what keeps us on edge. The kindly man with the grey beard does get visibly angry at a few points, but it’s all just theatrics. He’s at his most menacing when he’s acting the way he looks: gentle and collected.

I don’t know how much of the character Shaw brought to the role. I’d like to give him as much credit as possible, but I do get the sense a lot of it must have come from the writing. There’s a scene later in the story that consists of nothing other than Satan in a red tracksuit, jogging down the street on a sunny day. He’s all smiles. He waves at passersby. He is the embodiment of all that is evil and damn does that make him happy.

In exchange for rewinding time and letting Petey change his destiny, Satan requires that Petey marry his daughter. Petey responds that he absolutely will not marry The Dark Lord’s daughter. “That’s madness, man,” he says. “You’ve got to be sick.”

Then he realizes that he might be able to weasel out of it later, so he agrees.

Satan shows him a photo of his daughter and Petey responds again that he absolutely will not marry her with a brilliantly flat, “Oh, Hell no.”

Then, a second time, he convinces himself that he might be able to weasel out of it later. It’s a funny exchange with great comic timing on Petey’s repeated backtracking.

And so with no intention of keeping up his end of the bargain, Petey lives again. We see the events of the funeral a second time, but now reversed. Evidently Satan couldn’t rewind time far enough to resurrect poor Larry, but at worst that’s a plot hole that’s easy to ignore.

It’s easy to ignore because…

…take a deep breath…

It’s easy to ignore because for the rest of the film, Petey has a magical pimp cane.

If the idea of Rudy Ray Moore wielding a magical pimp cane doesn’t fill you with glee, I don’t think you and I can be of the same species.

From here, Petey Wheatstraw gets even stranger and becomes even more fun. It lives up to every ounce of the promise inherent in the concept, and Moore absolutely relishes it.

Petey obviously has some specific business he needs to tend to, and so does Ted. Together they confront the thugs who killed Larry, and later a disguised Petey attends opening night for Leroy and Skillet. Sure enough, the duo has a packed house, with Mr. and Mrs. White at the foot of the stage with their guests.

The house band plays a groovy, brass-heavy number to set the tone for the night of entertainment to follow. Leroy and Skillet appear on stage, soak in the applause, and launch into their comedy routine.

Petey — I am already enjoying this sentence and I’ve only started writing it — waves his magical pimp cane and controls their minds.

He makes the duo deliver his own kind of insult comedy at the expense of the Whites.

Leroy and Skillet — and the Whites, of course — are mortified and have no idea what’s happening.

They abandon their act and call out a singer instead. Petey again waves his magical pimp cane to make her lose her voice…as well as her wig and her dress.

Something unexplainable is happening and the crowd becomes as distressed as Leroy and Skillet, which means it’s time for Petey’s grand finale: destroying the rival club.

He stands, waves his magical pimp cane, and brings the venue to a state of utter destruction. Thunder claps somewhere in the distance. Petey savors his revenge, and the film dwells just long enough on him standing there, alone in a destroyed theater, watching sparks rain down around him, that we see exactly how seduced he is by the power.

I don’t mean to oversell the gravity of the scene — there’s not much — but it’s impressive just how effective the sequence manages to be.

And then, of course, there’s comedy. Now that Petey knows what the magical pimp cane is capable of — erm…anything — there is so much more he can do with it. Leroy and Skillet are out of the picture. The thugs are dead. The cosmic balance has been zeroed out…which means Petey can now start the cosmos toward a net positive.

The montage that follows is fun, gorgeous, and infectious. It’s funny and heartwarming at once. Petey strolls through his dear, dirty neighborhood, and waves his magical pimp cane at anyone he can help. Why? Well, because they need help, and he can help them.

He stops a feuding couple before they slip into domestic violence. He gets somebody’s disabled vehicle running again. He saves a child who is nearly hit by a car. He sees a heavy woman stuck in a chair and, with a wave of his magical pimp cane, frees her by giving her the body we’re sure she’s always wanted. The song playing is a composition just for the film by Nat Dove called “Ghetto Street U.S.A.” It’s a fantastic and infectious tune, with a name reflecting the filthy streets upon which Petey strolls and a groove reflecting the better place he’s making it with every step.

And Petey just loves it.

The happiness on Petey’s face truly belongs to Moore. There is a genuine love for where his life has taken him. It works for the character, but works even better for the man playing him.

Both of them are just so damned lucky, aren’t they? They were somewhere, with some unfulfilled desires and dreams, and then, overnight, they were granted a power they never had before. The power to make things better. For themselves, sure, but also for others. And maybe it can’t last forever. Maybe the end is a hell of a lot closer than either of them thinks it could be.

But for now, in this moment, unable to conceive of something they can’t actually have, it must feel pretty great.

There are dedicated comedy moments involving the magical pimp cane, I should add; it’s not all good deeds. In one scene, the cane starts vibrating for no discernible reason. Petey lets it lead him like a dowsing rod to a small trash can in the club’s restroom, and then it stops. Inside is a bomb planted by the rival club owners.

There’s some physical comedy as Petey & co. are in so much panic they can’t get the bomb out the door. They end up throwing it into the bed of a watermelon truck so that chunks of the fruit can rain down for blocks around.

Petey uses the magical pimp cane frequently enough that Satan begins to wonder if the guy loves his magical pimp cane more than he loves the terrifying demon daughter of Hell.

He confronts Petey on Earth to remind him of their deal, and to politely suggest that he not attempt to renege on it.

Satan lets him keep the magical pimp cane a little bit longer, which makes Petey even more confident he’ll be able to wriggle out of the agreement. As long as he’s got his magical pimp cane, after all, he’s able to fight back. He assures his friends — who question Petey’s wisdom in agreeing to marry Satan’s daughter — that he will solve the problem and keep them safe. None of them really seem to believe he can conquer the whole of Hell but, well, it’s not like they have any choice but to help him try.

This is where another difference between Petey and Dolemite is made clear. Dolemite is a natural hardass. He’s undefeatable. Someone may outthink him, but he’ll turn up in the end to rip their guts out with his bare fists. He is, as the sequel had it, a human tornado. A genuine, according-to-Hoyle force of nature.

Petey is the opposite. He absolutely fights well, but he never truly gets the upper hand until he has supernatural assistance. He can’t rely on brute force to solve his problems. Someone may beat the shit out of him, but he’ll turn up in the end to outwit them. Petey is more of an artful dodger.

So what does he do to outsmart Satan? He agrees to a time and place to meet The Devil and let himself be dragged to Hell.

…and then he kidnaps and drugs a hobo to take his place.

It’s a comedy, I know, but Petey Wheatstraw isn’t quite as good at painting its hero as flawed as it should be. Perhaps it’s just because Moore is that fucking likable.

In one scene he brushes a child’s hair and he does it too hard (or perhaps the kid’s hair got stuck in the comb) and the child starts crying. It’s not an act; it’s a kid expressing pain. And we still can’t dislike Moore, even as we watch him make a little boy cry.

Moore is a fun, loveable, charming son of a bitch, and while nobody will watch the scene and be glad he accidentally made a child weep, it’s also true that nobody will watch that scene and judge him for what happened.

And so when he kidnaps and drugs a hobo who can take his place in Hell…it’s something that in most movies would be a clear signal that our hero is either desperate or despicable. Or probably both. Here, it just causes us to detach; we know Moore is doing this because Moore thinks it’s funny. He’s still playing Petey, but we’re reminded that a comedian is making this movie and he’s taking us down what he hopes will be an amusing detour.

Once we know how things wrap up — the hobo wakes up in a car full of demons and gets away — it is indeed pretty funny! But Petey sure does creep into the territory of doing evil shit. He has one of his friends create a perfect replica of Petey’s face — where would we be without friends? — and they use it to disguise the sedated hobo.

In full fairness to our hero, he doesn’t expect his ruse to permanently fool The Devil; he just needs the hobo to take his place long enough for Petey and his friends to flee the city and start new lives somewhere else. It’s likely he expected the Devil to release the hobo once the trick was revealed.

Regardless, we’re thinking about it too much. Petey Wheatstraw gets away with us not believing its title character to be an asshole because its reality is fragile enough that we can pierce it at any point.

The Devil — being The Devil and all — is not amused. His demons storm Petey’s club and they ultimately kidnap Nell, played by Ebony Wright, Petey’s friend, assistant, confidant, and paramour.

Wright is great, and she’s another example of an actor to whom Moore is more than happy to cede the spotlight. A running joke in the film is that she apparently runs a phone sex service; Petey is staying temporarily at her house and she answers the phone with a smokey, seductive voice, dropping it the instant she realizes the calls are for him.

It’s funny, and Wright is a good enough actor that Nell comes across as well rounded and human. When she’s in the Devil’s grip, it’s believable that Petey would give himself up…or at least agree to a climactic rooftop showdown.

The Devil — as measured and calm as he’s always been in this film — keeps his end of the bargain once again. He does indeed let Nell go when Petey shows up. He’s a fair Prince of Darkness, which is probably what enables Petey to overpower him.

Still in possession of the magical pimp cane, Petey is able to fight back against the demons. Eventually, he even downs Satan himself.

He picks the old man up and drops him off the building, where he bursts into flames upon impact.

That’s it. Petey triumphs, because of course he does. He’s our hero, and good always defeats evil.

Except for the times that it doesn’t. This is one of those times. Petey climbs into the back of an idling car, thinking it’s his friends ready to start their new lives. Instead it’s Satan and his daughter, and that’s where we leave Petey Wheatstraw, in a freeze frame before he’s dragged directly to Hell.

It’s not a bad ending. It’s surprising enough that a comedy ended in failure for our hero, especially a failure that’s essentially played straight. I do wonder if — even only hypothetically — Moore and Roquemore had discussed a sequel. Leaving Petey here, suspended in this moment, would certainly leave the door open.

From the opening monologue of this film we know Petey is indeed in Hell looking back on what got him there, but that doesn’t mean a second film can’t see him trying to outwit The Devil yet again.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s our loss that Petey Wheatstraw doesn’t continue into another two or three or ten films. It gets to stand on its own as a one-off oddity that feels even more valuable because it only happened once.

For this brief stretch of 90 minutes or so, Moore reached the peak of his cinematic output. Maybe a sequel would have been better. Maybe it would have been exactly as good. Most likely it would have represented a step down. Probably a funny one, probably a creative one, but still a step down.

On its own, Petey Wheatstraw gets to stand as a solid achievement. Moore will always be known for Dolemite, and I’m not arguing that his legacy shouldn’t focus on that film and character. I will, however, argue that Petey Wheatstraw is long overdue for a serious critical reappraisal. Both Dolemite films had heart, but Petey Wheatstraw has soul. There’s very little to laugh at here, and plenty to laugh with.

It won’t change any lives, but it will make the people who see it happier, at least for 90 minutes. Moore waves his magical pimp cane and helps us all.

The spell may be temporary, but it’s a Hell of a lot of fun while it lasts.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Bagman” (season 5, episode 8)

Is it even worth mentioning that this was Better Call Saul‘s best episode? Maybe I’ll change my mind with time, but as of now it’s easily keeping company with “Five-O” and “Chicanery” at the very top of the ladder.

Something occurred to me after posting last week’s review. In that episode, Eduardo spots the JMM on Saul’s bag, and he asks what it stands for. Saul replies, “Justice matters most,” which was the on-the-spot backronym he coined with Kim in the first episode of the season. Eduardo suggests that it could instead stand for “Just make money.”

Pretty clear distinction between the two interpretations, which is probably why I didn’t read much further into it. Later on, it occurred to me. They were discussing what “JMM” stands for, in terms of three letters standing in for three words. But, silently, the question assumes another meaning: What does JMM — as in James Morgan McGill — stand for?

What does Jimmy represent? What does he care about? What is important enough to him that he’ll die for it?

“Bagman” proposes an answer to that question. Maybe not a definitive one — we have a whole season to go after this one wraps — but it’s definitive enough to give JMM a huge shove toward letting himself become Saul Goodman.

The episode is fantastic, and also about as simple as it could possibly be. In fact, its very basic plot — Jimmy retrieves $7 million from the cartel to get Eduardo out of prison — isn’t even resolved before the episode ends. We get a beginning, a middle, and punch in the throat for expecting an ending.

And that, for this story, at this point in Jimmy’s life, as an illustration of the way in which “resolution” for him is getting farther and farther away, that’s perfect. It’s not a trick you can always get away with — in fact, I struggle to think of too many more examples of this working — but it was the right way for “Bagman” to conclude. Jimmy has made his decision, and he’ll have a long way to go before finding any kind of relief.

It’s going to get worse, in other words, before it gets any better. Debatably, it never does get better.

Which is the whole point. Soon after picking up the money, Jimmy is ambushed and very nearly executed. He’s saved by Mike, but their vehicles are damaged in the shootout. Mike and Jimmy hoof it back to civilization, one of them clearly handling the situation better than the other.

Jimmy asks Mike how he manages to keep going, and Mike gives a nice little speech about what’s important to him…what’s important enough to him that he would willingly put himself in this exact situation. For him, it’s his family, and leaving them in comfort whenever he happens to go. That’s enough for him to push through whatever it takes.

What is it for Jimmy?

We don’t know. The romantic answer would be Kim; he’ll push through as much as he can to make her happy, perhaps. But we know — and Jimmy knew — that she wasn’t happy with this situation, so that suggestion falls at the first hurdle. He did this in spite of her very rational objections. In that moment, at least, we see him arrive at a more practical answer: $100,000.

He could make Kim very happy by saying he won’t go through with it. He chooses to do the opposite. To paraphrase Mr. Burns, he’d be happier with the one hundred thousand dollars.

At least, he thinks he would be. He certainly isn’t happy with it in the desert. Mike is able to push through because he cares enough about something that keeps him going. Jimmy isn’t and doesn’t.

And this is going to represent a serious turning point for him. We’ve seen Jimmy navigate ethical dilemmas before, and he’s always been able to rationalize his behavior. Last week, for instance, he used a fictional family to gain sympathy for Eduardo while the actual family of Eduardo’s victim mourned in the courtroom. That’s a shitty thing to do, and Jimmy knows it, but he can also rationalize it. It’s his job. He’s playing the game. He needs to do what he can for his client. He’s being a good lawyer.

In short, he’s able to separate his job from other people’s tragedies. One may lead to the other at times, but he has one role to play and he can’t get caught up in worrying about what might or might not happen to others as a result.

But he can’t use that internal defense anymore. Not after this. Not after watching man after man fall around him. Not after being threatened with death and then splashed with his executioner’s blood. Not after having to be pulled out of shell shock by Mike. Not after this continuous, days-long, still-compounding trauma.

He can’t play dumb. He can’t argue that his actions don’t have consequences, that he shouldn’t be held accountable for them, or that he can ignore them.

He’s living them, here, now. He’s acutely aware of just what he’s done. From here on out, every time he weighs an ethical decision, he will do so with the conscious knowledge of the damage he could cause.

We know where he ends up. Breaking Bad — whose “4 Days Out” is obviously complemented by “Bagman” — makes it very clear that Saul Goodman will eventually know the damage he is causing to other people and will continue to cause it. What this episode shows us is the moment he becomes conscious of it.

It’s painful. It’s traumatic. It’s horrifying.

And still he’s going to choose to push through it. Because there’s something he cares about deeply enough to keep him going. Here’s a hint: Jimmy wishes it still came in $1,000 denominations.

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