Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

Binging in the Time of Coronavirus

Last Word

Binging in the Time of Coronavirus

By Miriam R. Kramer

As many of us happily imagine some of the old normal returning, we still need entertainment to ease us through the next weeks. This past month, what with endless depressing news, my furlough from work, and multiple restrictions on my activity, I have had a difficult time concentrating on reading for the first time in many moons. I know I am not alone. When not attending to practical concerns, I have been running a television and movie marathon. Luckily we do live in the Golden Age of Television, in which quality series abound and all we have to do is push a few buttons to become absorbed in fully rounded characters and plots enhanced by great acting and writing.

I was very unhappy to see the series Homeland on Showtime depart after eight seasons. Homeland has been the most accurate and best spy series I have seen. It captures the nature of climbing the political ladder in Washington, DC; its atmosphere is nerve-jangling and its acting superb. This world characterized by intelligence-gathering encapsulates a dizzying sense of paranoia. I have watched it since it premiered in 2011 and recently rewatched it before the eighth series premiered this spring. The lead of the show, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), starts out as an intense, driven CIA officer with a fiercely protective mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), then Middle East Division Chief at the CIA. When she suspects that a newly returned prisoner of war, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), has been turned by his Iraqi captors, she relentlessly seeks the truth.

This scenario sets the stage for Season 1. Carrie is intellectually brilliant, nervous, reckless, and diagnosed as Bipolar I. When unmanaged by medication, her mental illness helps her see patterns that other officers cannot but also undermines her ability to function without going off the reservation. With Danes, Showtime cast a strong, capable actress to helm a show set in a typically masculine world, while also shedding light on bipolarity and reducing the stigma of mental illness. Carrie overcomes her illness multiple times while hunting targets through each season. This is a show focused on the hunt-and-be-hunted world of espionage first and foremost, inhabited by people married to their adrenaline-inducing careers.

Homeland is absolutely thrilling. I love it in part because most seasons are different from one another. They cover current hotbutton international and domestic issues in different countries including the United States, Pakistan, and Germany. Carrie and Saul’s official roles change somewhat as the seasons progress. The seasons themselves are slightly uneven in quality, but in a provocative way. That inconsistency shows experimentation and boldness on the part of the showrunner and writers. Even the seasons I prefer slightly less are well worth watching.

If you have somehow missed it and love spy thrillers, you are in for a treat. Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes make the perfect nerve-crackling mentor-mentee pair in tracking down double agents, terrorists, and other bad actors. This show shares little in common with traditional network spy shows. It is a powerful, realistic production that lets you fully inhabit its world of smoke and mirrors.

If you like excellent dramas studded with drug dealers, lawyers, black humor, and negative moral arcs, you should definitely be watching Better Call Saul. As a spin-off of Breaking Bad, the drug drama that earned its place as one of the greatest series in history during its run from 2008-2013, it stands on its own. Breaking Bad starred Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine dealer in Albuquerque, NM; and Aaron Paul as his assistant and former student, Jesse Pinkman. During the course of the series they decide to call a crooked billboard-advertising ambulance chaser, Saul Goodman, for legal help, after seeing his “Better Call Saul” advertisement on a park bench.

Saul Goodman’s upbeat, sleazy, and unapologetically cheesy character became a breakout supporting role for actor Bob Odenkirk. Showrunner Vince Gilligan therefore decided to create a prequel centered on the likable but morally compromised lawyer. As a Breaking Bad and Bob Odenkirk fan, I was thrilled to see Better Call Saul premiere in 2015. Set in the early 2000s, six years previous to the events of Breaking Bad, it focuses on the moral development of Jimmy McGill, the kind but ne’er-do-well younger brother of Chuck McGill, partner in the established firm of Hamlin Hamlin & McGill in Albuquerque. After his brother gets him a job working in the mail room, he gets his law degree by correspondence course and become good friends with Kim Wexler, an associate attorney at the firm.

Jimmy McGill, sometimes known as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” has always been a conman in and out of trouble with the law. He shows all the charm, people skills, and scrappy street smarts that his older brother, a brilliant legal scholar and snobbish establishment figure, lacks. His relationship with his jealous and mentally ill older brother, brilliantly played by Michael McKean, sets the stage for much of the series, as Jimmy’s setbacks and relationships slowly turn him towards becoming Saul Goodman, his legal altar ego. Vince Gilligan brings the same masterful touch to Better Call Saul that he did to Breaking Bad in exploring the way people’s bad decisions lead them down a slippery slope, entrapping them in an ethically compromised life from which they cannot escape.

In this sense, Gilligan brings back and develops a few characters from Breaking Bad for his prequel to enrich the Better Call Saul universe. The stellar Jonathan Banks plays the dead-eyed Mike Ehrmentraut, a former police officer turned hitman for drug dealers. We watch how Mike’s choices turn him down a road similar to Jimmy’s as they meet and gradually come to work together. Gruff, taciturn Mike, a reliable problem solver who loves his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, is as good an antihero as Saul, with whom he makes strange bedfellows.

Gilligan also brings back Gustavo Fring, a tightly wound Chilean-American drug dealer played perfectly by Giancarlo Esposito. With an official front as a restaurateur owning a local chain of fast food chicken restaurants, “Los Pollos Hermanos,” Fring is moving up as a drug dealer. Affiliated with Mexican cartels, he constructs a methamphetamine lab that will become a primary part of Walter White’s life in Breaking Bad.

As I write, the fifth out of Better Call Saul’s six seasons has just finished on AMC. Perhaps the breakout new player from the spinoff series is Kim Wexler, played subtly and brilliantly by Rhea Seehorn, as Jimmy McGill’s/Saul Goodman’s friend, lover, and wife. As a wholesome, steadying influence on him from the beginning, she develops in unexpected ways during the series. When Kim finally comes into contact with his cartel clients during Season 5, she also comes into her own.

Like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is not just about moral decline. It is also a seriously funny show, compulsively watchable for its great acting, study of family relationships and jealousies, jockeying drug cartels, and the large consequences of the characters’ small choices. Like Breaking Bad, it also features breathtaking and unusual cinematography that showcases New Mexico’s beauty. I could often watch Better Call Saul for its visuals alone. If you have never seen it before, catch the first four seasons for free on Netflix and buy the fifth.

Happy watching, and here’s to a much better summer for all of us.

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