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I probably pushed most of the Mega Man fans away when I said I actually wasn’t all that keen on Mega Man 3, and I’ll push the rest of them away by saying that I absolutely love Mega Man 4. It’s a truly wonderful game, and one of the best in the series. That’s not a popular view, I know, and it’s one that I was surprised to arrive at myself.

A few years ago I was speaking to a friend of mine about the series, and he said that Mega Man 4 was his favorite. I was…shocked, to say the least. For starters, the answer to that question is Mega Man 2. This is not up for debate. But for him to pick a game that wasn’t part of the initial celebrated trilogy? That was just…madness.

Only it kind of wasn’t, and my surprise was a result of the game’s reputation, not its quality.

The annual releases of Mega Man games had — at exactly this point — started to grate on people. It made the series feel cheaper and more disposable than it actually was. Each game still represented an experience worth having, but the games felt formulaic. While it might have been fun to fight a bunch of colorful robots and steal their weapons, was every new batch of colorful robots as fun to fight? Would all of the weapons be worth stealing?

Mega Man fans experienced a kind of series fatigue around the time of Mega Man 4, possibly only because it proved that it wasn’t just the first few games that would be released in a cluster; Mega Man was going to keep getting duped by Dr. Wily every year for the foreseeable future. That made our hero look like an idiot, and made us less likely to invest our efforts in helping him succeed. If Dr. Wily is just going to be back again in a few months, why bother? If this batch of Robot Masters doesn’t look especially interesting, why not just wait for the next one? God knows it won’t be long…

When my friend said he loved Mega Man 4, I couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t the series legendarily tired by that point? Wasn’t it just dragging its carcass around until Capcom finally put it out of its misery? When I announced this series of writeups on the Noiseless Chatter Facebook page, fan Dylan commented, “Isn’t 4-8 ‘Then they just phoned this one in’?”

That’s the air of muddy disinterest that surrounds Mega Man’s middle period. And that’s unfortunate. Not only because there’s still a lot of life in Mega Man 4, but because this game actually deserves the reputation that Mega Man 3 has.

Oh yes.

I mean that.

This is the near-masterpiece everyone thought they were playing last time.

My friend my have surprised me, but he inspired me to revisit the game with fresh eyes. With an open mind. With a willingness to engage that I guess I just didn’t have before.

It was my loss.

Mega Man 4 is incredible.

I don’t mean that it’s flawless, of course. I don’t even mean that everyone who reads this and gives the game another shot will agree with me.

I just mean that it’s a game that’s stuck in the cultural consciousness as one thing, when it should, by all rights, be remembered as another. It was the last game that successfully advanced the Mega Man formula, and arguably the last one that successfully honed — as opposed to merely tampered with — what came before.

It’s a smooth, fun, surprisingly enjoyable adventure that does not deserve to be remembered as the point at which the series went downhill. I assure you, it was not.

Mega Man 4 does a lot of things exactly right. As much as it gets dismissed, it was last game to make any lasting tweak to Mega Man’s standard moveset: the ability to charge Buster shots. This remained a staple of the Blue Bomber’s loadout until Mega Man 9 very deliberately pressed the reset button, and it even carried forward to spinoff series like Mega Man X and Mega Man Zero. (The slide, by contrast, did not, replaced by a similar but distinct dash mechanic.)

The chargeable Buster isn’t universally embraced, and I think that’s fair. I personally like it, but I also find myself not using it much.

Holding B will power up your shot by several degrees. Letting go of B unleashes whatever power you’ve built up. It can devastate minor enemies and can do a decent chunk of damage to bosses as well, but maneuvering in a game series as tricky as Mega Man is difficult enough; having to hold down a button while navigating disappearing blocks, hopping through projectiles, or carefully managing jump height to avoid spikes adds an additional layer of challenge that may not be worth the enhanced firepower.

I remember using the charge shot a lot as a kid. As in, almost always. As in, every stage’s soundtrack had its distinctive, bright hum overtop of it. Now I use it very rarely, and mainly for the few enemies that require it. But I do appreciate it, and it introduces additional layers of on-the-fly problem solving that benefit the game.

First, there’s the hit that you take to maneuverability in exchange for firepower, which makes more urgent the fundamental question of any Mega Man game: can I stay alive long enough to beat these foes? If you can’t move as gracefully, you’ll take more damage…but you’ll also, potentially, do more damage. Every new situation requires this issue to be reviewed afresh, and Mega Man stages are rife with varied situations.

There’s also the simple matter of time it takes to build up a shot. Is it worth pausing in a firefight to charge up your weapon? Maybe…but then again, maybe it’s better to shoot a number of smaller, weaker shots instead.

And what about the difference in precision? If you only have one charged Buster shot, can you be sure you’ll hit your target? The uncharged Buster is weaker, but you can fire many more shots in the time it takes to charge just one. Are you good at hitting your targets, or are you more successful when you pepper the screen and hope for the best?

The chargeable Buster is an innovation that works, because it forces players to think of the standard Mega Man formula in a new way without actively working against it. If you don’t like the chargeable Buster, it’s possible to play Mega Man 4 without it. Sure, you’ll have to leave certain enemies alive and navigate around them instead, but that’s been the case in every previous game as well; if you don’t have (or don’t wish to use) the necessary weapon, you need to rely on agility instead.

The chargeable Buster doesn’t change that. Like the versatile weapons of Mega Man 2, you are invited to experiment with it, to vary your playstyle with it, to decide situationally whether or not it makes the game easier or more fun to play, without it ever becoming mandatory. You don’t have to master Mega Man 2‘s alternate methods of using the weapons any more than you have to master the chargeable Buster. They’re wrinkles rather than barricades.

The chargeable Buster is this game’s evolutionary equivalent to the slide in Mega Man 3, and for my money it’s exactly as organic. They each allow the effects of a single button to be manipulated beyond their original, singular uses.

In Mega Man 3, the slide made a kind of intuitive sense from a control perspective. The player already understands that pressing A will spring Mega Man vertically skyward for some set distance. Pressing down and A together, then, produces a result that isn’t much of a leap for players to understand: it takes the same spring and moves Mega Man horizontally forward, as there’s solid ground beneath his feet and it’s impossible to jump “down” through it. In other words, the jump’s momentum is deflected 90 degrees. Mega Man’s lying posture reinforces the “down” action visually, and helps players to remember what triggered it.

That’s not to say that it makes immediate sense. No gamer at the time would have learned that A jumped and immediately intuited that down and A would slide, but after the player performs the action once, there’s enough logical connective tissue that they won’t forget. That’s key in a Mega Man game, where small mistakes add up fast and can result in immensely difficult or unwinnable situations. The player needs to learn to slide and remember in a split second exactly how to do it.

And they do. They associate the A button with a sudden rush of movement already, whether they realize it or not. Adding a quick press of down on the D-pad makes a rational sense based on what they already know about how the game plays. (Just in case it needs stating, the reason they couldn’t map the slide to left or right on the D-pad is that Mega Man still needs to be able to move horizontally in the air.)

The charge is a similarly effortless and natural tweak. The player is already used to pressing B to fire. That’s easy. The logical leap to holding B to fire a stronger shot isn’t much to ask of any given player, especially since children — the primary audience for video games at the time — had a habit of holding buttons down, rather than being dexterous enough to tap quickly or modulate their pressure. It’s why you remember jumping a hell of a lot of times into Bubble Man’s spikes as a kid, but probably haven’t done it much as an adult.

A child presses B and, for no reason except that his thumb is already there, holds it. Mega Man begins to flash and a strange sound is produced. Even if this only happens for a moment, the child notices. Now he presses and holds B, this time on purpose. And for a longer period, to see what happens. As such, Mega Man 4 exploits a natural and unavoidable curiosity to teach every child playing it a brand new rule without saying a word. It’s very well done, and a nuanced and impressive iteration on an established formula. Arguably the last worthwhile one the series would ever see.

I imagine I’ll get some quiet disagreement over this, but I also think this game’s approach to utilities was an improvement. Yes, yes, okay, the weapons are hot garbage, but, please, allow me to wallow in my love for a bit before I get to that.

As in Mega Man 3, you collect adaptors for Rush after two boss stages, enhancing his usefulness. In fact, Rush’s forms here are identical to the ones from the previous game — Coil, Jet, and Marine — without any attempt made to introduce a new one. They do fix the Rush Jet so that it behaves more like a steerable Item-2 and less like…well…the broken, untested mess it was in Mega Man 3, but otherwise it’s the same batch of abilities, with Rush Marine being as useless as ever.

But that’s not all you get. In addition to the Rush adaptors, which you collect automatically by progressing through the game, two true utilities are hidden in the main levels. And I love everything about them.

The first thing I love is the simple fact that they’re hidden in the main levels. Not that they’re all that difficult to find; Pharaoh Man’s stage requires you to investigate a curiously open area to the right of a drop, and Dive Man’s stage requires you to…ahem…dive in the only place you can actually do it. Neither are they difficult to reach once you know where they are. But the mere fact that these stages offer alternate, less-obvious routes with genuine rewards for your trouble is an impressive way to vary the traditional Mega Man gameplay. Of course, one could overdo alternate paths, so that instead of adding an unexpected wrinkle to a traditional formula you end up with a tangled mess that works against what players like about the series, but Mega Man 4 does it well. A few alternate screens here, an optional room there, and that’s about it.

Hiding utilities means that you may actually make it to the final stages of the game without a full inventory screen…a first for the series, and the vacancies on that screen are pretty tantalizing if you do finish the game without filling them. What did you miss? There’s only one way to find out.

This also allows players to have different experiences in that final stretch of levels, which isn’t normally a strict possibility. Main Mega Man stages can be completed in any order (with a few exceptions), which means that two players are likely to take entirely different paths through the game…until they get to the final stages, which are sequential. Here, the deviations will be smaller, and will mainly come down to which special weapons and utilities are used when.

But the thing is that both of those players would have all of the special weapons and utilities at their disposal by this point. Their loadouts will be identical, and it’s just up to them to decide what to use or ignore.

Mega Man 4 upends that. Player A gets to the final stages with both utilities, Player B gets there with just the Balloon Adaptor, Player C gets there with just the Wire Adaptor, and Player D gets there with neither.* Four distinct ways of navigating the stages unfold from there, with further variations depending on playstyle. That’s an exciting first.

Then there’s the utilities themselves, which I think are the best in the series.

No, really.

The Balloon Adaptor is, to be fair, pretty dull. It’s essentially Item-1 from Mega Man 2, but it feels more…real. More lifelike. And, sure, that’s down to its recognizable appearance, which looks like a cloth bag inflated with helium, but it’s also in the way it drops down slightly when Mega Man steps on, reacting believably to his weight before continuing to rise. A small touch like that goes a long way toward making the game feel like it takes place in a real universe. This small injection of personality makes the Balloon Adaptor more fun to use than Item-1, similar to the way shaping utilities like a dog made them more fun to use in Mega Man 3.

But, really, it’s the Wire Adaptor that stands out. I love the Wire Adaptor, and it’s one of the most fun things to play with in any Mega Man game.

Taking possible inspiration from Bionic Commando, another Capcom franchise, the Wire Adaptor lets Mega Man fire a sturdy cable directly upward. If it collides with an enemy, it will damage or kill it. If it collides with the ceiling or the bottom of a platform, the claw will grip tightly and the cord will retract, bringing Mega Man with it. Alright, so it’s not much like Bionic Commando. But it’s almost as much fun to play with.

I don’t know why later games didn’t attempt to resurrect the Wire Adaptor. Unlike platforms that rise slowly or jet quickly forward, the Wire Adaptor does more than let you get to new places; it lets you think differently about how to play the game. Since it functions as a weapon (albeit a slow and awkward one) you could actually, conceivably, use it to take out any number of pesky enemies that swarm you from above. I’ve even seen somebody use it to defeat Dr. Cossack late in the game, which was both funny and a tribute to the item’s unexpected versatility.

Mega Man is not the most nimble video game hero. He moves at a decent pace, but you couldn’t call it quick, exactly. He can’t duck. He can only fire straight forward with his default weapon, despite the fact that, logically, he should be able to fire in any direction he likes. His jump height isn’t that impressive, and he goes gliding helplessly backward whenever he takes damage.

In short, he’s kind of a klutz. And I think that’s what makes the Wire Adaptor such a thrilling surprise. Now Mega Man moves. He soars upward like a superhero, calling to mind Batman, Spider-Man, and Inspector Gadget all at once. He looks like he’s come so far from the first game. He looks like he’s gotten cooler and…well…better.

Once you have it, it’s difficult to not want to use it. Sure, you could reach that out-of-place E-tank in a few ways, but, man, the Rush Coil is so last year. And everybody starts with it! There’s no fun in that. With the Wire Adaptor you can reach it in style.

But, okay, I’ve babbled about the utilities enough and can’t in good conscience delay talking about the game’s problems much longer. I think Mega Man 4 is great, but I’m not blindly in love with it.

The problems, sadly, start with the main attractions themselves: the Robot Masters.

On the whole, I’d argue that the Robot Masters are still quite interesting, but there’s no avoiding the fact that this is where fan interest began to flag.

Even as a kid I thought the very concept of Toad Man was hilarious. (“We saved the world how many times? Now we have to fight a frog?”) Also, for reasons lost to me now, I absolutely hated the concept of Pharaoh Man. I’m pretty sure I knew what a pharaoh was, and there’s nothing about the level or the boss himself that should have turned me off, but I remember feeling like he was the first truly disappointing Robot Master. Maybe I just didn’t like that he was named after a job as opposed to a weapon or some other more evocative thing.

I know Dust Man gets a lot of flak, but, frankly, he never bothered me too much. He’s an industrial vacuum cleaner with googly eyes. Maybe not the most inspired thing in the world, but a better design, in my opinion, than a guy in a thrift-store skeleton costume and someone with a lightbulb on his head.

The least inspired design is probably Drill Man, as he’s just…a drill. With drill arms. He kind of sucks, and dueling him is nothing great, either, unless you for some reason enjoy battles in which your opponent spends huge portions of the fight inaccessible. It combines all the fun of waiting with the thrill of doing nothing.

In fact, the Robot Master duels here are pretty tame. The toughest fight undoubtedly comes from Pharaoh Man, who is quick, powerful, and tricky. Of course, he’s absolutely crippled by the Flash Stopper, which freezes him in place long enough to kill him effortlessly. (Quick Man was similarly helpless to the Time Stopper, but it wasn’t enough to kill him unless you played on the easier difficulty setting.) That’s not exactly a complaint, though; it’s up to you whether or not you’d like to essentially skip the fight, and attempting to take him down with the Buster reveals a pretty satisfying battle.

Otherwise, though? There’s really not much on offer. Bright Man is difficult, but mainly annoying, freezing you helplessly in place and colliding with you or gunning you down mindlessly. Dive Man, Skull Man, and Dust Man all follow very simple patterns and don’t seem to have had much effort invested in their programming.

Then there’s Toad Man, who is programmed so legendarily awfully that he’s embarrassing to even fight.

Here’s the thing: yes, it’s possible to lock other Robot Masters into cycles that don’t allow them to attack. Elec Man, Heat Man, and Nitro Man all come immediately to mind, as do nearly all of the Robot Masters from Mega Man 7 if you use their weaknesses. I’m probably forgetting even more.

But in those cases, you need to figure out how to lock them into those cycles, whether those cycles were intended or not. Essentially, you need to crack a code. You need to figure out what the Robot Master does on his own, as well as how he reacts to your movements and to your attacks…and then also figure out a repeatable set of actions on your part that keep him locked into a cycle he can’t break.

It’s not easy, and in most cases it’s not even possible. When it is, it’s thrilling, because you’ve outwitted an artificial intelligence. It’s not Mega Man vs. XXXX Man; it’s mind vs. machine. It’s an organic brain vs. a mechanical one. It’s an important and thematically resonant conflict, so that when you do figure out how to do it, you didn’t just win a battle; you overcame something you were not meant to overcome.

Beat Elec Man? Fine. Beat Elec Man without even letting him move? Now you have something to be proud of.

Then there’s Toad Man. It’s possible to lock Toad Man into a pattern during which he cannot attack. But there’s a problem: you do this by default.

See, doing it to other Robot Masters requires you to behave in unexpected ways, and to have thorough knowledge ahead of time of how your enemy operates. When you pull it off, it comes from hours of practice and possibly even research. It comes from substantial periods of observation. It comes from work, from failure, from repetition to the point that you can close your eyes and picture exactly how a hypothetical fight will go based entirely on what you’ve already learned.

With Toad Man, you just shoot him.

That’s it.

The default thing you do to everything you find in the game.

You press B. That’s how you break Toad Man.

It’s…strange. Every time you shoot him, Toad Man hops harmlessly over you and lands on the other side. So you turn, shoot him again, and he jumps back over.

If you leave him alone, sure, he hits you with the screen-clearing Rain Flush, which is impossible to avoid once it’s been activated. But shoot him — as you undoubtedly will, without any training or practice or foreknowledge — and he slips right into a pattern he cannot escape. The only way to lose to him is to not attack him, something that literally no player would even try. It’s a terribly careless bit of programming in a game that otherwise is decently polished, and it does drag the experience down a bit.

But then there’s Ring Man…my personal favorite Robot Master. Not just in Mega Man 4, but overall.

I love this guy, mainly because he feels like a perfectly tailored, brilliantly responsive fight. There’s also the theme of circularity he has going for him which resonates with me on personal level but…I won’t bore you.

My friend who loved Mega Man 4 is actually the one who explained to me how to defeat him with the Buster…which is not difficult to learn but, at first, is very difficult to execute. When you know how to handle him, when you can recognize his pattern, when you’ve practiced the fight enough to see it with your eyes closed, Ring Man’s duel is the most natural and rewarding in the game. It’s actually fun, requiring a good deal of clever footwork and an ability to keep calm in a room with a fast opponent and a faster projectile.

Ring Man is easily this game’s standout battle, and his weapon — the Ring Boomerang — is the standout in that category as well. The Pharaoh Shot is probably the runner up (it’s chargeable, aimable, and you can use it to cause collision damage!), but, like the Wire Adapter, there’s just something so stylish about the Ring Boomerang that makes it fun to use. It’s big. It’s shiny. It returns. It makes an incredible shhhing sound. It’s all glimmer without gold, I know that, but video games can live and die on glimmer. It feels more impressive than the other weapons, which instantly means that it is.

That about does it for the interesting weapons, though. The Skull Barrier is the most worthless of all shield weapons, the most worthless of all weapon types. The Dive Missile has the same problem all homing weapons in Mega Man have: it doesn’t home in on anything reliably, making it less likely to hit its target than your default projectile. (And that…is…irony.)

Then there’s the Drill Bomb, which illustrates my point about the organic implementation of the chargeable Buster by doing everything wrong. The Drill Bomb is one of only three weapons in the game that can be used in any way more complicated than pressing B. In this case, you can press B once to fire it, and then a second time to detonate it.

…but there’s no indication at any point that this can happen, and I’m sure most players have no idea of this functionality. Which is a shame, because one of the final bosses is weak against the detonation.

The chargeable Buster works because it taps into something people will do unconsciously anyway: hold a button down. With a visual and aural signal, players are clued into the fact that they should hold the button down, at least to see what happens.

The Drill Bomb, though, doesn’t teach players how to use it. They try it, it flies forward like almost any other projectile, and that’s that. There’s no reason to press B a second time, at least not while the projectile is still on screen or before it collides with an enemy. Of course, the easy rejoinder to that is that players would likely try to fire multiple projectiles at once to defeat enemies more quickly…which is true, except that this mainly applies to the default Buster with its unlimited ammunition. The moment you implement strict weapon capacity, as the special weapons do, you discourage players from firing mindlessly.

Many players harp on certain Mega Man games (often beginning with this one) for having unimpressive weapons. As much as I’d love to dismiss this critique, I can’t. It’s valid. And it’s a real problem.

It’s the weapons that should keep these games interesting. They’re how the games both mark and reward progression. And they are what make all of the games feel distinct; they’re the new set of toys you get to play with each time, and they’re perfectly (and evenly) paced in their distribution. By the time you get bored of playing with one toy, you get another. You can’t ask for a more perfect drip-feed than that.

Not all weapons have to be great, of course, but they do need to feel distinct enough to merit playing with them. When they don’t, there’s no incentive to experiment with the new toys, and fatigue sets in more quickly. Players choose monotony over the game’s concept of variety. That’s not their fault, and we know where that leads.

It’s worth revisiting Mega Man 4, though, and it deserves critical reappraisal. No, the weapons won’t scratch anyone’s list of favorites and the Robot Master duels are largely lame, but the chargeable Buster is a thrilling evolution to the formula, and this is arguably the best game to feature it. The music in a few cases is just as good as anything that came before. The addition of another set of fortress stages before Wily Castle is a smoother, more impressive, more fun evolution of the frustrating, flawed Doc Robot stages of Mega Man 3.

In fact, the fortress stages (both sets) are some of the best in the series. They’re actually fun to play, as opposed to being overcrowded, unfair, punishing gauntlets. The highlight is either Dr. Cossack’s great autoscrolling level with counterintuitive platforms that rise rather than fall, and a Wily stage populated entirely by various versions of the hardhat enemy. Even the final boss is a giant one! …which, yes, is something we saw multiple times in Mega Man 3 but it’s still cool here so leave me alone.

What’s more, Dr. Cossack is an interesting villain, mainly because he’s not one. Sure, the game’s big fakeout (spoiler: IT IS ALWAYS DR. WILY) is predictable, but Dr. Cossack represents a fascinating middleground between the relentless evil of Dr. Wily and the tepid goodness of Dr. Light.

Dr. Cossack is a fundamentally good man driven to do fundamentally bad things for the sake of protecting his daughter. This makes Cossack the most human character we’ve met yet.

The previous two doctors behaved just like their robots: programmed to be good or programmed to be bad. And while the series doesn’t exactly need rich characters with complex motivations to keep players interested, I actually really love that they bother exploring some kind of human emotion with Cossack here. I especially like that he’s so grateful to Mega Man for saving Kalinka that he builds Beat, a helpful robot bird, in the next game as his way of saying thanks. Cossack disappeared from the series after Mega Man 4, but through Beat — through his works — he lives on.

Mega Man 4 isn’t a perfect game. It’s not even close. But it feels so much more polished than its immediate predecessor, even if it doesn’t quite reach the highs of some other games in the series.

Maybe the most important thing to me is just how warm the game feels. How welcoming. How even the final stages don’t seem to want to punish you, or even test you unduly. It just wants you to have fun. Maybe it can’t give you the best time you’ve ever had, and maybe you won’t even remember it a few years down the line. But it wants you to enjoy the time you spend together.

I think that’s reflected in the game’s new supporting robot character: Eddie. He’s just a little red canister with big, friendly eyes that pops in now and then to give you a helpful item. Unlike Rush or Proto Man, he doesn’t have a definitive purpose. He’s just there. He just likes you. Whoever you are…he likes you, and is going to help you push through.

He doesn’t need to be thanked, and he doesn’t overstay his welcome. He just wants to make sure you’re comfortable.

The first time I saw Eddie, I tried to attack him. He didn’t look much different from the enemies I was fighting.

The bullets passed right through him, of course. He waddled up to my feet and tossed me an extra life. For free. I didn’t have to do anything to earn it, and he didn’t even seem to care that I tried to kill him.

Thinking on it now, I expect that most people tried to kill Eddie the first time they saw him. I wonder if the game shouldn’t have let them do it.

Not because I dislike him, or for any kind of dark or cynical reason. I just wonder if Capcom shouldn’t have let your shots connect. Eddie would beam out, of course, but then you’d progress without his helpful item. And each time you saw him, you’d fire again, and he’d keep beaming out. You’d always think you were clever, scaring off an enemy before he ever got the chance to attack.

I wonder if that wouldn’t have been a perfect little echo of the game’s larger theme of the blurred line between friend and foe.

Eventually you’d have the Cossack twist spelled out for you. But you could go the entire rest of your life without learning the truth about poor Eddie.

All because you’ve been programmed to fight.

Best Robot Master: Ring Man
Best Stage: Skull Man
Best Weapon: Ring Boomerang
Best Theme: Dive Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 4 > 3 > 1

(All screenshots courtesy of the excellent Mega Man Network.)
—–
* Compare this to Mega Man, the only previous game that would have allowed deviation: Player A makes it to the final stages with the Magnet Beam, Player B does not. But there’s no deviation beyond that, because Player B won’t be able to progress, and will need to return with an identical loadout to that of Player A.

Last week’s episode felt a lot like Breaking Bad. This week’s episode feels a lot like Better Call Saul.

There’s always been a balance between the two shows, facilitated mainly by the parallel protagonists. When we’re with Mike, this show feels like its predecessor. When we’re with Jimmy, this show feels like its own beast. And as much as I love Mike, I think it’s safe to say that anyone reading these reviews knows by now that I prefer the time we spend with Jimmy. And watching “Chicanery” — a rare hour without any appearance from Mike at all — I didn’t miss Mike one bit.

Better Call Saul is always at its best when it’s charting Jimmy’s journey. When it’s mapping his transition from flawed attorney with a big heart to rampant shyster. When it’s peeling back the cartoon glossiness of Saul Goodman and revealing the hurting, caring, nearly respectable human being within.

“He has a way of doing the worst things for reasons that sound almost noble,” Chuck says of him this week. And that’s a crucial difference between the character we know in this show and the one we knew in Breaking Bad. We liked Saul, of course, but at no point — for no duration — did he ever seem noble.

So somewhere between this point in his life and that one, the bottom falls out. Jimmy doesn’t just change his name…he loses his humanity. He’s drained of his blood. And we likely see the pivot point for that in this episode, when he has his own blood on the witness stand in the form of his older brother…and breaks him.

It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but “Chicanery” handles it extraordinarily well. We know Jimmy is the one who is lying. We know that each time he lies, Chuck’s concerns about him practicing law — something the elder McGill holds sacred — are revealed to be better and more solidly founded. We know that Jimmy is manipulating circumstances not only to clear his name, but to destroy his brother’s.

And yet, I think we still side with Jimmy.

I think we still care the most about Jimmy.

I think we still want the best for Jimmy.

Chuck is somehow both the victim and the villain in this episode. I think it works, but I’d be interested in hearing from someone who thinks it doesn’t. Mainly I think it works because we conclusively reveal Chuck’s condition to be a sham. (Not a deliberate sham, but a sham nonetheless.) We feel cheated by him just as much as Jimmy should. We’ve had indications before — often very strong ones — that his allergy to electricity was all in his mind. We knew that. But somehow, exposing it so definitively, leaving him nowhere to run, allows us to react as though we’ve been taken in.

Chuck took advantage of his brother’s patience, love, and hospitality. And since it’s his brother with whom we are aligned, that’s all we need to know in order to see Chuck as the bad guy.

There’s no further question (your honor); Chuck is mentally ill.

And, funnily enough, his extended outburst after finding the battery in his pocket could potentially get him disbarred for not being in command of his faculties. That would be an interesting karmic twist on the disbarment proceedings against Jimmy.

But I’m jumping ahead. “Chicanery” is one of the best episodes of this show we’ve had yet, and maybe the one most worthy of calling itself Better Call Saul. It deals almost entirely with characters and relationships unique to this show, and it dissects one of its most important dynamics (Jimmy and Chuck) while quietly, passively providing room for the other (Jimmy and Kim) to grow.

It’s also a bottle episode, taking place almost entirely within a single room. And it’s perfectly positioned, depositing us directly in the middle of the season with the question of where these characters will choose to go next. Chuck and Jimmy are at obvious turning points, and Kim’s willingness to play dirty suggests that she might be as well. Not to mention the possibility of Howard canning Chuck to avoid a foreshadowed reputational crisis.

What’s more, it single-handedly proves that Better Call Saul is finally at the point where it can start reflecting itself, as opposed to reflecting what we remember from Breaking Bad. The opening sequence alone is reminiscent of the candle-lit dinner in last season’s “Rebecca,” and Chuck even invents a lie about the power company transposing the numbers in his address…which is importantly similar to the crime Jimmy committed in “Fifi.”

It’s nice and refreshing that I’m able to watch an episode of this show and see echoes of Better Call Saul rather than characters and imagery and musical cues from Breaking Bad. Ironically, the closer this show draws to its parent series in time, the more opportunity it has to become something completely different.

And, yes, speaking of Breaking Bad, Huell’s back! I posited a couple of weeks ago that we must be close to seeing him again, and I honestly didn’t expect to be right. I thought it was wishful thinking at best, but, hey, here we are, with the big man demonstrating his nimble fingers for the chronological first time.

I don’t have much specifically to say about “Chicanery,” possibly because it leaves me with so little room for criticism. Everything I’ve been wanting Better Call Saul to do all along, it does here. And it does it flawlessly. For an episode that’s essentially one long, moderated conversation, it’s incredibly gripping, tense, and heartbreaking.

It’s everything I’ve been wanting to see, in a way I never imagined seeing it. It’s an episode that reassures me that, yes, Better Call Saul deserves to exist on its own merits, for its own reasons, in its own ways.

It’s insightful, offering important glimpses of who these characters really are, and I think anyone watching came away with at least a slightly evolved perspective of one of them. For me, the biggest insight came from Chuck, who praised the importance and significance of law as something that ensures that everyone, no matter who they are, will face consequences for their actions.

He doesn’t see law as sacred because it protects people, or because it ensures that everyone will be treated fairly. He views it through a punitive lens. And, certainly, compared to that, Jimmy’s actions do seem almost noble…

I’m excited for next week, but that’s nothing new. Maybe what’s new is that I feel excited for Better Call Saul‘s willingness to offer an experience that we simply couldn’t have had on Breaking Bad.

No episode of Breaking Bad felt like this.

And that’s the biggest compliment anyone can pay Better Call Saul.

Yeah, I know, my post title sucks, but I don’t really have a running feature on the blog I can tie this to. It’s just a piece of pretty cool television history that I can’t find anywhere on the internet. For all I know, I have the last surviving copy and am therefore morally obligated to drop it into a volcano.

But, what the hell, I’ll archive it for future generations instead.

I saw this at a convention, and Casey Roberson was nice/vindictive enough to buy it for me. The vendor described it as a piece of promotional material sent to networks to see if they wanted to air ALF. He wasn’t wrong, but I assumed he meant for its initial run. Instead this was distributed in 1989, toward the end of the show’s run, promoting the availability (starting fall of 1990) of ALF for strip syndication.

Strip syndication refers to a show’s reruns airing at a fixed time across the entire week, thereby showing up as a long “strip” when laid out on a TV schedule.

Of course that also means the trifold gets to play into the naughty definition of “strip” and present ALF as a Playmate centerfold. This means I own the only official piece of ALF pornography ever produced.

Now you see why I’m bothering to archive it!

Anyway, I’m including pictures, but since I just have an iPhone I’ll also transcribe the text. I intend to be as accurate as possible, right down to any typos or punctuation issues. Feel free to point out any you see in my transcription, though, just in case they’re my own.

I have seen some of the details here in other places (such as ALF’s favorite Melmacian TV shows) but since I can’t find a copy of this anywhere, I assume there was just some overlap with copy found in other materials.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Tanners aren’t mentioned here at all. This is trying to sell a show without even paying lipservice to four of the five main characters.

That’s our ALF!

Anyway:

Front: The Centerfold


The centerfold features ALF lying naked on a beach. You’re welcome.

The only text is “CELEBRITY OF THE MILLENNIUM” and “MR. TELEVISION.”

There’s also a “Love, ALF” signature. Thanks to this and the next page, we have the best look at his handwriting we could ever want. Analyze away, graphologists!

The copyright notice in the lower right reads:
ALF is a Registered Trademark of Alien Productions ®
© 1987 Alien Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Yes, I know the copyright notice says 1987 and I said it was circulated in 1989, but you’ll see where I got that date later. This must just be the copyright date for the image, as the text is clearly selling the show for syndication in 1990, which is not something they would have been doing in 1987. The text, therefore, may not be copyrighted at all, so feel free to use it to advertise your own show about a farting puppet.

Inside Left: Celebrity Data Sheet


This page features three promotional photos of ALF and one from “Don’t it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” where he’s dressed as legendary womanizer Elton John. We also get some definitive MELMAC FACTS regarding his birthday, but I don’t get whatever joke they’re trying to tell by giving him two of them. Then there’s the insight nobody expected that he wants to fuck the cat from the 9Lives cans. (And, I guess, Mr. Ochmonek.)

Anyway, the text:

CELEBRITY DATA SHEET

NICKNAME: ALF REAL NAME: Gordon Shumway
HEAD SIZE: 33″ WAIST: 33″ HIPS: 33″
HEIGHT: 3’2″1”’ WEIGHT: ‘Till the Sun Shines, Nellie
BIRTH DATE: August 12 and October 2, 1757 PLANET: Melmac (Lower East Side)
FAVORITE EXPRESSION: “Curiosity Killed the Cat” (Usually followed by the expression “Pass the Plum Sauce”)
TURN-ONS: Morris the Cat, High Nielsens, Hawaiian Shirts
TURN-OFFS: Empty Fridge, Short Jokes, Alien Task Force
FAVORITE MOVIES: “It Came From Outer Space”, “Mars Needs Women Now” and “Hair”
A GOOD WOMAN IS: Friendly, Funny and Furry
SECRET FANTASY: To be a regional sales manager for Meow Mix

Inside Center


THE HOTTEST THING IN PRIME TIME IS AVAILABLE FOR STRIPPING.

Inside Right: Interview


He’s hip, he’s hot, he’s ALF, the biggest thing to hit television since the remote control. On the occasion of his highly successful NBC-TV prime time smash being made available for strip syndication (starting fall ’90), we interviewed the old ALFer.

We caught up with ALF at the refrigerator on the set for a candid, far-reaching conversation.

Q: Thanks for taking the time from your busy schedule to do this interview.
ALF: No problem. Mind if I eat a pot roast while we chat?
Q: Not at all. Were you ever on television before you got your own series?
ALF: Yes. I was a contestant on Melmac’s most successful game show, “Wheel of Cheese.” I won a sofa, a set of mock luggage and a styrofoam goat.
Q: Pretty impressive. Were you the biggest winner?
ALF: No, actually Tyrone Split was the biggest winner. He was seven foot three and weighed three-hundred and forty-seven pounds. Ha! I kill me!
Q: And us as well. Are you the only Shumway to enter show business?
ALF: Oh, no! My Uncle Goomer Shumway was a famous actor. He starred in great Melmacian movies like “Cat on a Hot Tin Griddle,” “Gone With the Fish,” and “Luncheon Counters of the Worse Kind.”
Q: Let’s talk about your amazing success on television. Your popularity on NBC has been growing stronger each week, your demographics show that you have a perfect audience composition, and now you are destined to become a hit in syndication. Why do you think that you made such a huge impression on our whole planet?
ALF: I hit it pretty hard when I crash landed. Hey, if I wasn’t wearing my seat belt, I’d look like Sean Penn.
Q: What do you think of earth television?
ALF: Hey, by watching television I learned that the world was black and white before 1953! But television on Melmac was funnier. Shows like “I Dream of Homer,” “Bowling for Rice,” and “As The World Explodes.” Even though the last one hits a little close to home now.
Q: Sounds interesting.
ALF: It does? Is this going to take a lot longer? I have a drumstick here that’s growing bacteria!
Q: Just a few more questions. You’re entering the syndication marketplace next to shows like “Cosby” and “M*A*S*H.”
ALF: I can see the line-up now. Huxtable, Hawkeye and Hairball! Ha! I kill me!
Q: You’ll be making lots of money.
ALF: Yes, but it’s only paper. On Melmac we paid with fur. If you over-spent, you went bald. And we don’t want station managers going bald. I realize in some instances we may be a bit late.
Q: Well, ALF, I’ll wrap this up. You’re an alien who has it all. A hit network show, the admiration of millions…
ALF: This drumstick that’s hardening before my eyes…
Q: But what’s next for ALF? What are your dreams?
ALF: I do have one recurring dream about showing up for work and realizing that I’m not wearing any pants. But then I remeber that I don’t work and I never wear any pants.
Q: Thanks for your time, ALF. Many thanks for this revealing interview.
ALF: My pleasure. Sure you don’t want some pot roast?
Q: No, thanks. There’s no silverware.
ALF: So?

ALF
alien productions

LORIMAR™
SYNDICATION
A LORIMAR TELEPICTURES COMPANY

So, yeah, there you go! It’s actually pretty cool. It was wrapped in plastic when we bought it, so I didn’t get a good look at it until later. The Playboy similarities are pretty tame, and it’s nothing a child would recognize, so I can imagine this was a really nice take-home for station managers whose kids loved the show. It’s a cool bit of very rare memorabilia, and if I had gotten my hands on it as a kid I would have thought it was great.

Does anyone else know more about this? I wonder what other bits of ALF ephemera are lost to the ages.

It’s laminated like a restaurant menu, which means it’s stayed in pretty good shape through the years, and I’m both happy to have it and thrilled that I get to be the one to preserve it online. Mainly, though, I hope you are as upset as I am that this is the third different “here’s what Melmacians used for currency” joke. Whoever wrote this should be FIRED FROM ALF.

Before I got to watch this episode, I saw somebody say that “Sabrosito” felt a lot like Breaking Bad. That didn’t spoil anything, of course, but I knew exactly what must have been meant by that: there’d be a lot of Mike.

That’s interesting to me. As many characters from that legendary show pop up in this one (“Sabrosito” adds Don Eladio to the list), it’s only Mike that feels the same. In some cases that’s clearly by design. Jimmy — the other main Breaking Bad character — is at an entirely different phase of his life. We may see him act like Saul Goodman now and then, but he’s still James Morgan McGill. He pursuing different things than Saul was, in different ways. He has different ways of approaching his problems. His station is almost entirely distinct from the one in which we find him during Breaking Bad.

But Mike is Mike. He loves his granddaughter, he’s willing to get his hands dirty, he has an identifiable personal morality, and he has a preternatural gift for Getting Shit Done. He is the character we remember from that other show, with the only differences between incarnations being superficial.

Jimmy needs to become someone else. Literally. Mike just needs to shake someone’s hand and make it official.

So when people say that Better Call Saul feels like Breaking Bad, they’re almost certainly referring to a Mike scene. After all, the previous “feels like Breaking Bad” episode was season one’s excellent “Five-O,” which was the Mike origin story we never initially got. Jimmy barely figured into it, and barely figures into it again this week.

We’ll talk about Jimmy more next week, but for now I want to make a point: Mike is no longer the one character that makes the show feel like Breaking Bad. Now we have Gus Fring.

I’m okay with this, but I’m also a little surprised. In the media runup to season three, I read an interview with Giancarlo Esposito, who plays the character. I don’t remember much — I may have skimmed to avoid spoiling things — but I do recall him saying that the Gus we meet in Better Call Saul isn’t quite the one we knew in Breaking Bad. I’m necessarily paraphrasing, but the sentiment seemed to be “Gus is still getting the hang of things, growing into the character we remember.”

Now, a few episodes into his life on Better Call Saul, I don’t buy that one bit. Either Esposito is trying to convey that on screen and failing, or…well, I don’t know what the alternative is. But whatever the alternative is, that’s what I’m betting.

Gus is already Gus. Not precisely the same Gus but, again, the difference is the same as it was for Mike: superficial. He’s everything we remember in broad strokes, and we just need to sync up a few details.

Jimmy is a completely different character…as is Hector. Those two appear here in distinct, unique incarnations. Those two each face a journey — clearly tragic — that will eventually deposit them where we remember them being. Mike and Gus are just killing time.

I’m not complaining…I’m just thinking out loud. As this show and Breaking Bad pull closer together on the highway, it’s tempting to compare them more directly, and to think of what happens here not as events unique to this show, but as ones that lay groundwork for the other.

And I’m still kind of disappointed by that. Better Call Saul doesn’t deserve to live in the shadow of Breaking Bad, but it so frequently seems to want to. It’ll carve out an identify for itself here and there, when it can do so without stepping on the other show’s toes. And, frankly, I don’t think that should be its consideration. It can be fun when Breaking Bad characters swing by to say hello, but lately it feels as though the space occupied solely by Better Call Saul is getting thinner and thinner. We aren’t winking at the parent series; we’re turning massive amounts of screentime over to it wholesale.

Does that matter if it’s good screentime though?

Maybe and maybe not. As of now, I still love Better Call Saul. But if it gravitates toward becoming Breaking Bad: The Lost Episodes, I’m going to be far less interested. I’ve seen that show. I own it on DVD. I can revisit it whenever I like, at my leisure. I don’t need to tune in weekly to Better Call Saul if I want to see it. Rather, I should be tuning into Better Call Saul because I want to see Better Call Saul.

Mike is fun to watch, but I can’t say his story — as we know his character remains constant — is anywhere near as interesting to me as Jimmy’s — as we know his character transforms. Gus is fun to watch, but I can’t say his story — as we know his character remains constant — is anywhere near as interesting to me as Hector’s — as we know his character transforms.

You see what I’m getting at here. There are things only Better Call Saul can do. And then there are things Breaking Bad already did.

It feels strange to criticize something like “Sabrosito” for this, because “Sabrosito” is very good. It’s well acted, well written, well shot. It’s thrilling and funny and scary. It held me rapt for 50 minutes or so while feeling like it went by far more quickly.

It was a good episode of television.

There’s just a question of whether or not it was a good episode of Better Call Saul.

On the whole, I admit that I like the more direct Breaking Bad stuff here. The Don Eladio scene at the beginning fleshed out the backstory we saw teased in the “Hermanos” episode of that other show. There Hector killed Max, somebody who clearly meant a lot to Gus. Fine, and that’s all we needed to know. But here we see how Hector’s dealing and Gus’s dealing overlap, and why these mortal enemies had a common associate in Don Eladio at all.

Did I need to know any of that? Of course not. But it’s nice to shade in some detail.

Even more I liked Hector showing up at Los Pollos Hermanos, as the question of how Gus’s less savory dealings might collide with his outward professional life was only hinted at in Breaking Bad. Here Hector crushes the distinction, and it’s both very funny and very scary.

What I love most about having Hector back is that Mark Margolis really gets to stretch his legs (…sorry) in a way he didn’t in Breaking Bad. There he was confined to a wheelchair in anything other than flashbacks, and could only communicate through a bell and a series of angry expressions. Here he…asserts himself. Shows us who Hector is. Reminds us of why he was such an imposing figure in the first place.

The scene in which Hector’s crew takes the restaurant hostage — with some nice touch-and-go theatrics as a woman and her child attempt to leave — was fantastic, and it demonstrates what an absolute treasure Margolis really is. He’s a comedy villain that’s sometimes comic and sometimes villainous without either trait undercutting the other. It’s a hell of a daring balance and it pays off marvelously.

And that’s what Better Call Saul needs to be doing more of if it really wants to retread old ground: show us parts of it we haven’t seen.

Don’t rush to get Jimmy into his new identity, because we’ve seen that. Don’t eat too much time showing us Gus glowering into the middle distance, because we’ve seen that.

Show Hector savoring a cigar while fast food employees yell at him, or scraping dogshit off his shoe onto Gus’s desk. Show Mike playing door repairman and quietly enjoying his torment of Chuck with a power drill.

Show us this world. Don’t show us that one from a negligibly removed perspective; show us things we couldn’t have seen before.

Dead characters are alive. Side characters are leading men. Moments we’ve only ever alluded to can be dug deeply into for their full comic and dramatic impact. Characters we’ve never even heard of are here, just waiting to give us something every bit as memorable as that towering show that came before.

There’s so much ahead of us.

“Sabrosito” proves that.

But it also shows how willing Better Call Saul is to look backward instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a guy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine.

Then they create Kim.

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

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

Of course, gravity will reassert itself.

It always does for these characters.

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

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

And we already know it ends.

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

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

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

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