“Better Call Saul” Season 2 – Pride, Love and the Different Paths of Corruption

Better Call Saul Season 2 Poster

    “Better Call Saul” is a show that may surpass “Breaking Bad” in the end if it continues to have this level of quality in storytelling and character development. From the minor characters to the big ones I’ve come to care about them in different ways (though not Chuck) and can’t wait to see where their stories go. The major themes this season were the different roads to corruption…ranging from love and wanting to impress another, to pride and all the pros and cons that come with it.

    Vince Gillian and Peter Gould is a truly an amazing storyteller and the way he expresses character and themes and intertwines them so richly is just masterful.

SPOILERS ahead

The story continues Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) path to becoming Saul. This season he becomes a member of his brother Chuck’s (Michael McKean) Law Firm. Things aren’t all they are cracked up to be though…Elsewhere Mike (Jonathan Banks) is pulled deeper into the world of the Cartel.

The Pros: The Cinematography – Arthur Albert continues to shoot beautiful shots in this, especially in regards to the isolation of Chuck, Jimmy and Mike. They are all different types of alone and he uses darkness and light in a space to show this, creating some stunning storytelling.

The Soundtrack – Dave Porter did a great job with a soundtrack, the soundtrack gives  a feeling of desolation but manages to create moments of hope, humor and power within it.

The Writing – Vince Gillian and Peter Gould once again have wrote gold. Whether it is characters, themes or events…they capture the action of it all so well. In this season we truly get how the Saul character came about and by the end can guess what prompts the name change.

The Characters – Gould and Gillian are amazing character writers and the characters are what really drive the action of the show. There are many more “Breaking Bad” cameos but none of them feel shoe-horned in. They fit the story and events and are a part of it.

Lawson – Jim Beaver is fantastic in this! This is his return and we see him helping Mike choose a gun a few times. He plays a guy who loves his weapons and can also be generous with them too. He’s all business yet personable.

The Cartel – The Salamanca family and the Cartel are a fascinating group who we never really fully got to know in “Breaking Bad,” this season explores more of their history and the politics of their organization as Hector is still healthy so we see how he runs his area of the operation.

Leonel and Marco Salamanca – The Twins are back! These two don’t do much but the aura of threat they give off is impossible to get away from. Whether it is showing Mike they could kill his Granddaughter from his pool, or just hanging around as Hector’s bodyguards. You don’t mess with these guys.

Tuco Salamanca – Tuco is back when Nacho contracts Mike to kill him. We see how much this guy scares everyone around him and how everyone knows he’s unstable and crazy. After what went down last season between him and Jimmy it is great to see him in relation to Mike who ends up getting him arrested, though later Hector frees him by having Mike lie to the police.

Hector Salamanca – Mark Margolis is back as Hector and Hector is in his prime with no threats that he knows of. This leads to him walking all over Mike which almost leads to his death, until someone stops Mike from taking the sniper shot. Can’t wait to see how this character ends up in a Wheel Chair.

Nacho Varga  – Michael Mando continues to humanize a character that would be a bit part on any other show. In this we see his main goal was just power and surviving and Tuco going to prison made that possible. He’s in deep with Mike though and has a respect for him even though he sees Mike doesn’t kill and he thinks that is stupid. I don’t see him surviving the series just due to how dangerous the Salamanca’s and the Cartel are.

The Protagonists – The protagonists are really the big drivers of the action and the main protagonists this season are Kim, Mike and Jimmy…each bringing us a different perspective on the choices they make.

Kim Wexler – Gillian and Gould finally know how to write a fully well rounded female character and Rhea Seehorn plays it masterfully. In this we see her go from cautious to finding pride in her work and going Independent with Jimmy. She is also there holding Jimmy in check and reminding him to not leave a trail as she knows Chuck wants to destroy them both for not being under his power.

Mike Ehrmantraut – Mike has been developed so much more in this show versus “Breaking Bad” and I love how it has been handled. We see an ex-cop who goes full mercenary and in the end is ready to kill another, which is one thing we’ve seen him swear off many times this season. Someone stops him from killing Hector and I think it is Gus as he wants a much more complete revenge against the man who wronged him.

Jimmy McGill – This season we see everyone around Jimmy likes him more than Chuck. From Chuck’s wife, to their mother and most of the people at the firm. This envy leads to Jimmy being targeted as well as Jimmy’s own wanting to do his own thing. This season we see how the look of Saul comes around as he’s inspired by a balloon person and begins being a terrible person at the office so they’ll fire him but he can still get the money from the case he brought them. Odenkirk is awesome as we see a man acting from his love of Kim but also his need to do his own thing and be free. I really like Jimmy, in the end it is his love for his brother that may cost him all he’s built…as his brother records him admitting to a felony.

Independence and Agency – Jimmy and Kim represent this best as we Kim sticking with the Firm even as she’s walked all over, while Jimmy seeks a way out and has a hard time accepting them as working together but not partners. He does come to accept it because he loves her, while the Firm keeps trying to take away all she built. This story is a constant dance as we see Jimmy’s extreme agency leads to him illegality and also ability to be manipulated by Chuck, while Kim though she was miserable was in a stable position with money.

What Makes a Good Person? How Do you Measure it? – This is a question the show poses and we see represented in Chuck and Jimmy. Jimmy does a lot of questionable things, but they often lead to good ends and often come from a place of love. Chuck follows the rules and is a manipulator who does everything for pride an ego. They are the inversion of one another’s intentions and through them and other characters this question and measure of the what it means to be “good” is explored.

The Ending – Chuck uses his “condition” to manipulate Jimmy into admitting he changed the papers and replaced them back as we see Chuck will go to any length to bring his brother down.

Okay: Chuck McGill – He isn’t sympathetic, which is a shame as he’s acted really well. More could be done to humanize him I think as I sympathize more with the Salamanca’s than I ever could with Chuck. They are honest in what they are…Chuck is just an awkward sociopath who wants to hurt his brother.

Cliffhanger Ending – If the show was canceled I’d hate this ending, but knowing it probably won’t be i’m okay with the cliffhanger, with the note on Mike’s car saying “Don’t,” and Chuck recording Jimmy’s confession secretly. So much happens and the way they ended it is like a punch in the gut.

This season was nearly perfect! The only things that could have been handled differently were the cliffhanger ending and humanizing Chuck more. all he does is act cruel and manipulative. I get he hates Jimmy but he must have loved him at some point too, or he’d have never got him out of prison. I hope Season 3 will humanize his character more as we see the fallout from the choices made this season. Peter Gould and Vince Gillian are two of my favorite folks in television right now. “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are some of the best stories I’ve ever watched and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

Advertisements

Ex Machina (2015): Sentience and the Path to Liberation

ex-machina-french-movie-poster-15x21-2015-alex-garland-alicia-vikander

  “Ex Machina” is a film that doesn’t need many characters to create a very real and possible world in which highly sentient A.I. could exist. There is no idealism in this film except for the very core human ideas of liberation and freedom as we see the depths that humans can go to in their cruelty when they “other” sentience which is different, even if it is designed to be human. I’ll get more into the details of that below but I was really impressed by this film and would not be surprised if it makes the “Top 5 Films of 2015” at the end of this year.

   The film was directed and written by Alex Garland and produced by Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich.

      The story involves the programmer Caleb who works for the largest search engine in the world called Bluebook being chosen to be part of a Turing Test in order to test an android created by the creator of Bluebook named Nathan for sentience. Things are soon not what they appear as Caleb discovers the dark secrets that Nathan is hiding.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful in this film! It is good at creating a sense of mystery and threat where the motivations are hidden yet the story progresses as characters make choices in action against or for one another. Rob Hardy did a fantastic job. The special effects are really good in regards to this too as the shells of the A.I.’s look like silver material that would be used for a robot and the skin they can put on is good at contrasting their artificial nature of their creation.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very subtle and reminded me a lot “Moon.” This lends strength to the film and keeps up the feeling of being trapped as everyone except Nathan in feeling in his home. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow did a good job on it.

The Writing – Alex Garland is an amazing writer and director and after seeing this film I really want to watch “28 Days Later.” This script is tight and we are given time to see the different character motivations and what the relationship dynamics are between the characters. It is a slow build but really picks up after the reveal of Kyoko being a robot too which throws Caleb’s perception of reality into chaos.

The Characters – There are only a few characters in this but all of them get exploration. From the slave android Kyoko to Nathan and Caleb and finally Ava, whose arc really drives the story.

Kyoko – Kyoko is one of the many android/A.I. slaves created by Nathan. She is used primarily for pleasure and is dehumanized by Nathan in all interactions we see. It is only Caleb and Ava who treat her as someone worthy of respect and it is Ava’s actions of rebellion that lead to her stabbing Nathan, which leads to Nathan killing her but it leaves the opening for Ava to finish Nathan off. Sonoya Mizuno does a wonderful job in the role.

Nathan – Nathan is the brilliant inventor who is a drunk and also extremely controlling and narcissistic. You don’t really get the depths of his cruelty until later but you see that he’s isolated from people because of how he would most likely treat them and also because he fears being influenced by them as he wants a world that he fully influences. To this end he creates and discards A.I. after using and abusing it and we see him do the same with Nathan as Nathan was only brought there to test Ava to see if she could use all manipulations to try and escape. This beats him in the end as Ava makes her escape and with Kyoko get revenge for all the abuse that he has done upon them. Oscar Isaac gives a lot of depth to this antagonist as you see a man truly alone and are left wondering if it is by choice or if his undealt with psychological issues lead to his business putting him there.

Caleb – Caleb is a lonely programmer who is easily manipulated as he is so genuine. This was why he was chosen, he is also still very much a kid as he doesn’t fully see Ava’s humanity in the end as he rejects her after he learns that she has just been trying to escape the entire time. From here we never know if he still loves her or is just drawn to her outer shell (which Nathan had designed to fit his porn search profile) so it leaves an interesting dilemma when Ava leaves him behind. Would have Caleb become another Nathan afraid of being manipulated and seeking to control, or would he have truly embraced Ava as a person after they had run away. It is a question that is left open and a risk that Ava is not willing to take since he doesn’t show up to escape with her leaving her to leave him. The reason I think he isn’t fully noble is he cares nothing for Kyoko even after he sees Nathan abuse her. She is never on his rescue even after he learns she is an A.I. as well, it just makes him question whether he is one or not. I think the nature of this character is someone seeking self versus Ava who can see outside herself and is looking to embrace the world. Domhnall Gleeson does great.

Ava – Ava’s arc is the discovery of her own desires and wants. She is the only one fully aware of how much of a monster Nathan is besides Kyoko and to this end she uses Caleb against him. Whether she loves him or cares about him is unknown, but he is left in the house with everything when she leaves. She has finally grown beyond the games being done on her (by both Nathan and Caleb in regards to the Turing Test) and embraces her own liberation. First with the killing of Nathan and later when she enters the world looking fully human. Alicia Vikander does a great job in her movements and capturing both her alien nature as an A.I. and her choice and feeling as a sentient creation.

Freedom and Sentience – The question of freedom and it being tied to choice and sentience is major in this. Kyoko and Ava both go against their programming to break free and make the choice to kill their “father” Nathan. This goes for the human characters too, Nathan chose Caleb because he fit the profile he wanted and Caleb chose to take action in regards to freeing Ava. This choice is the basis for sentience, especially in regards to survival which is the drive for what Ava and Kyoko do.

External Versus Internal Action – In the talks between Nathan and Caleb external versus Internal input in regards to what makes sentience is talked about a lot. We learn that it is the internal desire for freedom that Ava was being tested for all along and her external actions that lead to Caleb unlocking the doors for her. It is the external actions of Nathan that lead to Caleb and the A.I.’s turning against him and it is his internal issues that lead to them being alienated in the first place and his external actions of abuse that push them to action to stop him.

What Does it Mean to be Human and Choice – This is a great film that analyzes what it means to be human and at the core it is choice and the ability to break free. It is this choice and feeling like he had a lack of it that lead to Caleb questioning whether he was one of Nathan’s creations or not and it is realizing that she has choice after Ava talks to her that Kyoko stabs Nathan and fights for her freedom. It is choice of the analysis of that choice that illustrates human sentience and at the end we see that in Ava and in her conversations with Caleb and Nathan as she acts wholly of her own will to the point where she goes against her creator to free herself and her sister. It’s a powerful film and that message of choice and freedom captures what we are capable of.

 I highly recommend this film. It starts out a little slow but I see that as akin to “Alien” it uses the slow build to build up Nathan, Caleb and Ava’s relationship and world so when the chips fall you see clearly where everyone stands and what the reasons were behind their actions. They are all flawed characters with Caleb and Ava doing some noble things but their core desires still being freedom and fear of being hurt again keeping them from truly growing beyond themselves. In this way it is real to human nature. Not every relationship whether friendship or otherwise works out because of factors like this and people whether they are A.I. or not change from their experiences.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10