Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…but why would I do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s one kind of story.

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

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

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

But I listened.

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

My target became human.

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

I still killed him. I had to.

But it meant something different now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how Nacho filled his empty space.

Each of the characters filled theirs.

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

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

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

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

So he slips.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

We’ve learned our lesson.

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

Hello, everybody! Remember me? The guy who used to write stuff?

Well, I’m not dead! In fact, three things have been occupying my time lately. I know it can get frustrating when I’m only posting Better Call Saul reviews and infrequent installments of Fight, Megaman!, but that’s really because it’s all I’ve had time to do lately.

I’ll explain those reasons right now, but if you don’t care to read them, please skip to the last one. There’s something I’d like you to do, and it’s fun. I SAID IT IS FUN.

Hail Storm: Some of you may know that a couple of weeks ago, the Denver area experienced catastrophic hail. That’s not me being dramatic (for once!); it was literally a catastrophe, doing millions of dollars of damage to homes, businesses, construction projects, and — of course — cars. It probably sounds silly if you weren’t here to experience it, but, sure enough, the hail storm totaled my car. Mine was just one claim Progressive was handling out of 11,000…due to this storm alone. So, much of my time has been taken up by dealing with the insurance company, buying a new car, and getting rid of my old one. Which was kind of sad to me, as I took really good care of that car and it had very low mileage. It deserved a better fate than that. Oh, and, buying a new car is expensive and it sucks so there’s that part, too.

Persona 5: Persona 5 came out, and what free time I have had has pretty much been spent in the company of the Phantom Thieves. I posted about this on the Facebook page as well, so if you ever think I died, check that page to be sure! I have a lot of ideas for essays I could write about it, and I’m sure tempted to, especially now that I’ve finished the game…but, then again, I never got around to writing my Persona 4 essay. Or my Persona 3 essay. Those might still happen, as might this one, but I know better than to promise it. Oh, hey, I had one brewing about Final Fantasy XV, too. I’m sure doing a lot of not-writing for a writer!

5th Annual Xmas Bash: Oh yes, it’s time! Just kidding. It’s not. December is time, and it’s not December. But I was talking to a friend about this year’s Xmas Bash, shooting ideas back and forth, and the next thing I knew, I wanted to get working on the stream. And…most of it’s done, now! I have all of our television episodes and musical interludes picked out and waiting. I still need to insert commercials and, of course, whatever unique material we shoot, but I’m excited, and I know it’s going to be a really great stream. I’ll announce details as far ahead of time as possible, so stay tuned.

And, hey, here’s something you can do for me:

Complete the Xmas Bash survey. It’s only two questions, and all you have to do is pick your five favorite specials and five favorite musical moments from past Xmas Bashes.

Well, you know, “favorites.” Not necessarily the ones you thought were best, but the ones you most enjoyed watching in a Bash context.

That’s it! It would be pretty helpful to me, as I have an idea of what I can do with the results. Again, this year’s stream is largely complete, so don’t worry about me changing anything. I’ll be using this info for something else, and I think you’ll like it.

So, yes, please, vote for your favorites. It’ll only take a moment.

Oh, and if you need a reminder of which song is which, this handy Xmas Bash playlist contains them all.

And I won’t tell anyone if you put Gummibar Mega Mix on repeat. We’ve all done it, and we’re all friends here.

“Expenses” may be the bleakest episode of Better Call Saul yet, which makes it a worthwhile point of comparison with Breaking Bad. See, that show was pretty bleak as well. On the whole, I’d say the agreed-upon bleakest episode is “Ozymandias,” and I’d have a difficult time putting forth any other forerunner.

But what made “Ozymandias” bleak?

Well, there were the deaths of major characters: Hank and Gomez. There was the kidnapping of our second lead, Jesse, as a result of our actual lead selling him out. There was the sudden empowerment of the show’s villains, who then seized the money Walt hid in the desert…the money that was, indeed, the root of all of Walt’s evil. There was the clear and unavoidable distinction between the desperate Walt who opened the series and the cruel, mindlessly vindictive Walt we had now. There was sharp betrayal with fatal consequence that left families irreparably broken.

It was bleak. And even if you’d finger a different episode as your particular “bleakest,” your reasons would probably be similar to everything I said above. The specifics would change, but the broad strokes would not. Breaking Bad had a kind of bleakness that lent itself to being explored in primarily those ways.

And now we have Better Call Saul‘s equivalent.

With no death.

With no betrayal.

With no shifts in power.

With no beloved characters in danger.

Better Call Saul lives in the shadow of Breaking Bad, and God knows its marketing team is comfortable with it remaining there for the rest of time. But the contrast between the way the two shows explore rock bottom — and what they each consider to be rock bottom — is an important and instructive one. It’s where we find each show’s soul. It’s where we see illustrated most clearly the difference between right and wrong. And, in each case, it’s illustrated by the characters choosing incorrectly.

We find Better Call Saul plumbing its own depths in a quiet episode that, ironically, covers a lot of ground without digging deeply into any of it. “Expenses” is decidedly superficial, sketching out the vague points of a tragedy and letting its own silence — and ours — fill the space in between.

The result is…bleak.

And it’s a bleakness that actually works very well with my recurring concern about the show…while asking me to reconsider it.

See, I want Better Call Saul to stand on its own merits. It will necessarily provide backstory for characters we knew in Breaking Bad, and I’m more than happy for the old familiar faces to pop up now and again, but I’ve wanted Jimmy McGill’s story to be…well…a story. Not a preamble, not a prelude, not the long-lost Book One. I want Better Call Saul to be one thing, and Breaking Bad to be a related but distinct other.

And yet, that might be unfair. I don’t know that Better Call Saul ever was promised to us in that way. Maybe Better Call Saul is exactly what it seems like it would be: not the story of Jimmy McGill, but the story of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman.

I wanted the former, and for a good while I thought that that’s what I’d get, but if the show is really about the latter…if it’s less about transformation than it is about that one particular transformation…then, well, I can’t complain.

And “Expenses” suggests that Better Call Saul is something other than what I’d hoped it would be. Fortunately, it also suggests that that’s not a bad thing.

“Expenses” functions as it does — as bleakly as it does — entirely because we already know Breaking Bad. Seeing these characters hit the floor is only as effective as it is because we know what’s to come. We know that while it’s not the end of their story, it may be the end of their relatively safe times. We know that as each of these characters is faced with a chance to extract him or herself from what is clearly a bad situation, they won’t.

The episode doesn’t end by telling us they won’t, because it doesn’t have to. The episode knows that we already know.

And so the bleakness of “Expenses.” A question is raised, but it’s not the deliberation we focus on. It’s the impending doom on the horizon. The knowledge that however many episodes may pass before decisions are made official, the characters are already doomed.

I wasn’t exaggerating up there, either; each of these characters does face a chance to extract themselves. Here. In this one episode. All of them independently of everyone else. What’s more, it’s handled so effortlessly that you may not even recognize the fact that they’re all facing the exact same decision at the exact same time. It’s good writing, as it nearly always is, and it’s so natural as to be invisible.

The most obvious example might (might) be Kim, who snaps rudely during a meeting with her client. She takes it back — and all seems fine — but then blurts her regret about piling on Chuck the way she did. She’s openly having second thoughts, and Rhea Seehorn put forth some of the best physical acting I’ve ever seen on television in that scene. Her voice remains steady, but the inner turmoil is conveyed through her breathing. If you’ve ever seen somebody pop in real life and then stuff it right back down, you’ll know what to look for. And you’ll find it right there.

Then there’s Mike, who keeps good on his unwitting promise to build a new playground for the church. While there he bonds with another parishioner, and we see a side of him we’ve never seen before, on either show: Mike with a real friend.

Prior to this, I think the closest friend we’ve ever known him to have was Jesse Pinkman, and that relationship — as important and genuine as it was — also involved a clear and necessary distance. Here he lets her help pour concrete, and later listens intently to her story of her missing husband. He opens himself up to her — and to the church — in an unexpectedly warm way. He lets his guard down. He accepts help. He accepts…others.

It’s a different Mike. It’s a Mike he might even like being.

But it’s not the Mike we lose in Breaking Bad. We know he pushes it away.

Then there’s our old cobbler-sitting, card-collecting friend Pryce, who finds himself seduced back into the game by the promise of $20,000 for easy work. Mike specifically cautions him against getting involved. In fact, he tells him not to and instructs him to come up with an excuse. This is Pryce’s chance to break free as well as a reminder that he’s lucky to have made it out alive the first time. Needless to say, he doesn’t listen, either.

And that’s not all. There’s Nacho, whose plot against Hector has holes poked in it, and who is also cautioned against proceeding. We can say with confidence that — while he may or may not succeed — he certainly won’t put the breaks on.

Centrally, though, there’s Jimmy, whose conclusion is the most foregone.

This is his chance to extract himself, too. To admit defeat. To swallow the loss on his airtime and malpractice insurance, to knock out his community service, and to find a job that brings in more money than he spends.

But he doesn’t do any of that. He sinks more time and money into his commercial gambit, and lies about its actual performance to Kim. (Several times over.) He uses his failed appeal to his insurance agent as an opportunity to kick Chuck even harder while he’s down. He digs his heels into a venture that isn’t — in any sense of the word — working, refusing to find another professional and ethical direction for himself even when, it has to be said, that would be the much easier option right now.

Every one of those characters has a chance to take a deep breath, think about where they are, and take a step toward getting, instead, where they’d like to be.

But they each grit their teeth and decide against their own better judgment to stay where they are. Each of them is a failure raging against an opportunity to succeed.

And that’s pretty remarkable characterization to pull off five times in succession in a single episode.

I’m interested in the Jimmy we see in “Expenses,” because I think we’re about halfway toward him truly becoming Saul. Certainly there’s a balance between his two incarnations here, and we can feel it teetering.

He still has a heart, and is still a largely decent human being, refusing to take money back from one of his film crew, even when he clearly needs it. Yet he schemes to get Chuck’s insurance rates raised with a cruel crybaby act.

He still takes Kim out (and treats her) because he knows she needs a break, but their usual, playful scamming turns darkly sinister as he seems to realize, in that moment, that he could genuinely break one potential target just for the fun of it. (A moment that clearly worries Kim, but doesn’t scare her off; yet another illustration of the balance.)

I wanted Better Call Saul to be something that I’m increasingly coming to believe it isn’t.

But it is something great. Something that’s grown on its own terms, feeding on our love for Breaking Bad, yes, but giving us a deeply engrossing and elegantly handled transformation story along the way.

Only three episodes in the season remain. And the fact that we already know no character will make wise use of them only makes them more compelling.

Well, that was an unexpectedly busy episode. And a surprisingly good one.

I had pretty strongly expected “Off Brand” to be quiet. Probably reflective. Coming off of the massive, important clash of last week’s “Chicanery,” this was a chance for the characters — and for Better Call Saul — to pause. To consider. To look forward and determine, carefully, what to do next. For comparison, think back to the stretch of episodes in Breaking Bad‘s third season when Walt successfully (though temporarily) extracts himself from the drug trade.

A crossroads has been reached. We may know here even better than we knew there that our hero will gravitate back toward darkness, but that silent moment during which the ball hangs suspended in the air is rife with tension. It’s a gift to the writers. It’s a chance to explore what remains after the bomb has gone off. A chance to breathe before everything comes crashing down again.

And Better Call Saul doesn’t breathe. It barrels forward. I’m surprised by that, but based on “Off Brand” I couldn’t possibly say it was a bad idea.

We pick up more or less where last week left off. Everyone’s aware of Chuck’s mental illness, but the characters are each handling it in their own ways. Rebecca is overcome with concern. Howard invites him to see this as a new beginning. Chuck himself calls his old doctor (I’m guessing a therapist), which may or may not be a larger turning point for him than the fact that he leaves the house alone. And Jimmy…well, Jimmy hits him with an indirect — but long overdue — fuck you when he refuses to check in on him.

Rebecca was right…I’ll grant her that much. Chuck is mentally ill. Chuck does need help.

But it’s not that Jimmy won’t help. It’s that he already did. For too long. And he’s seen what it’s gotten him.

Every man has his limit, and, if anything, Jimmy reached his two seasons too late. He sips champagne again. Chuck is in trouble, but this time he can deal with it alone.

Jimmy’s champagne comes at a cost, though. He wasn’t disbarred, but he was suspended for twelve months. He promises Kim that he’ll be able to pull his weight financially during that time, but by the end of “Off Brand” we don’t have a definitive answer as to how he intends to do that. Mainly, though, Jimmy isn’t taking the defeat lying down. He’s working. He’s finding direction. And as the commercial he produces suggests, he’s finding himself.

Yes, Saul Goodman is here at last. That’s an alias from the Slippin’ Jimmy days, but it’s probably important to note that he’s not using it to scam anybody. In fact, his offer is legitimate: in order to offset the sunk costs of his “Gimme Jimmy” campaign, he’s selling his commercial production services. His clients, so far as we can tell, will get exactly what they’re promised for exactly the cost he’s asking.

It’s not entirely on the up and up, however; Jimmy’s contract explicitly forbids him from selling his airtime. So…he’s not. He’s giving it away, with the purchase of his services. He’s found a loophole.

It’s a victimless crime…but one suspects that he’s on a slippery slope.

I like this. I’m pretty sure everyone watching this show expected him to adopt the Saul Goodman moniker in order to continue practicing law after getting in some kind of trouble under the name James McGill, and that’s certainly still possible. But, for now, it’s introduced in a completely unexpected — yet totally organic — way. The obvious answer wasn’t the answer, but what we get fits just as well. That’s pretty good writing.

Some more good writing comes from the way in which Nacho takes over for the incarcerated Tuco. Most interesting is the way it recontextualizes the job he hired Mike for (which came to a head in “Gloves Off”). Was he really afraid of Tuco and worried for his safety? It was certainly easy to believe, as we’d seen Tuco unhinged many times over. But the ease with which he slips into Tuco’s old role — and the quickness with which he’s compelled to solve a problem with violence — might imply something else. It might imply that he wanted Tuco out of the way for a different reason. He might have just wanted to climb up the chain.

This would make sense, as Hector being in power meant that Nacho would never be able to position himself above Tuco; family is important to Hector, and Nacho’s just a hired hand. But take Tuco out of the picture, and Nacho might start to shine a little brighter in the old man’s eye. Certainly Hector was impressed by the fact that Nacho had a gun to his head in this episode…and still came away with what he wanted.

Of course, we now also see Nacho at a crossroads. He’s perfectly happy to treat his dealers well, and he enjoys occupying Tuco’s seat. But then Hector pushes him a little further, and he’s almost as happy to lay a savage beating upon Krazy-8. He’s rattled by it — and injures himself with a sewing machine while reflecting on what he’s done — but if that’s what it takes to survive in Hector’s gang, that’s what he’ll do.

What he won’t do — at least immediately — is involve his family. We saw way back in “Cobbler” that Nacho’s uncle is an honest man who runs a bodyshop. Here we see that his father is just as honest, making and repairing upholstery. In short, Nacho is from a respectable background of hard workers. When Hector (ahem) hectors him into roping his father into the business, he pushes back.

We don’t get a definitive answer — Nacho is saved by Bell Telephone — but the reluctance is clear. And part of me wonders if Hector’s eventual crippling comes as a result of another arrangement between Nacho and Mike. When he wanted Tuco out of the way, he got it. If he decides he needs Hector out of the way as well…we’ll see.

I’ll be interested to find out what he does with the pill he stole from Hector. I doubt a missing pill will be enough to set Hector down an irreversible road toward infirmity, but perhaps Nacho will figure out what that medication is meant to be treating, and work out a plan from there.

So, yes, the big reveal this week was Saul Goodman…but that’s not the only connection reestablished with Breaking Bad. Gus tours the laundry facility that will come to house his superlab (which hopefully means we’ll be meeting Gayle soon), and then he gets into the car with…


And that’s a character I really didn’t expect to see again. Foolish me.

I loved Lydia on Breaking Bad. She was a late game addition that worked so well within that universe and managed to feel more important to it than her abbreviated run would suggest. Having her back is wonderful, because it means we’ll get to spend more time with her, yes. But also because it allows her to interact with Gus, and that’s a relationship we never saw on Breaking Bad as she wasn’t introduced until he was out of the way.

I actually did a double take when I saw Laura Fraser, and I’m pretty sure it was the biggest smile any Breaking Bad carryover got out of me.

And so Better Call Saul wastes no time in moving forward, and no time in drawing nearer its parent series.

Which is a kind of crossroads in itself.

Does the show rush forward, filling in the remaining blanks and drawing us toward its known point of termination?

Or does it spend a little more time with itself, building its own universe and asserting itself as an important TV drama in its own right?

You know my answer. But at least now I know that if the show pulls the other way, we still have episodes like this to look forward to.

And I’ll take a page out of Jimmy’s book on that one; it’s technically a loss, but it’s a loss worth celebrating.

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