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TV Quickshots #27

Better Call Saul: Season 2 (AMC; 2016)

Narrowing its craft to laser precision in its second season, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad spinoff prequel Better Call Saul grew into a full-fledged heir to his perennial Emmy juggernaut. It became more morally complex and ambiguous as the continuing attempts by Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) to become successful practicing law his way are increasingly and actively opposed by his disapproving elder brother and big-firm partner Chuck McGill (Michael McKean).

On a certain level, the sibling rivalry is simple: Jimmy frequently cuts corners and behaves in an underhanded, unprofessional, even illegal manner to achieve his goals as an attorney, and Chuck would rather that his little brother work his way up like he did, with concentrated labour, intelligence, and above all ethics and, you know, without flagrantly, repeatedly breaking the law. Better Call Saul is very careful not to make Chuck a wet blanket for holding Jimmy to account, however. Indeed, he’s more of a reflective blanket of the sort that he frequently dons as protection from the electromagnetic waves that he hypersensitively imagines are “bombarding” him at every moment. Chuck’s affliction (doctors think it’s all in his head, but he vehemently disagrees) makes him dependent on others, and Jimmy does make an effort to care for him despite their continued hostility over legal and career matters (late in the first season, it is revealed that Chuck was the insisting force behind his firm’s refusal to hire Jimmy after he brings them a considerable class-action suit against a chain of retirement communities). But another thread begins to be woven into their relationship as well: people just like Jimmy more than Chuck, even people Chuck imagines himself very close to.

Around the McGill brothers, connected characters struggle with moral questions that reflect, contrast with, and provide shading to their dialectic. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn, the show’s secret weapon), Jimmy’s girlfriend and fellow lawyer, is incrementally presented with more and more evidence of Jimmy’s reprehensible practices and must reconcile her feelings for him with her growing distaste for how he practices law by disregarding it, even while participating in sideline con artist schemes and incorporating their sleights-of-hand into her own gradually bending straight-arrow law practices. Meanwhile, former cop and future Saul Goodman associate Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) becomes embroiled in a deepening cold war with the Salamanca drug gang, where he finds his determination to punish them for crimes against himself and others running inexorably against his own moral codes and his inability to jettison them as thoroughly as the cartel members do.

But even as other characters share more of the stage in its second season, Better Call Saul is still about Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill. A prodigious talker, a born persuader, but with a hangdog conscience that is a hindrance slightly more often than an advantage, Jimmy McGill tries to cut it on the straight and narrow but finds himself not merely ill-suited to it but insufficiently enervated by playing by the rules. Better Call Saul will presumably leave off where James Morgan McGill becomes Saul Goodman, and it gives every indication that this transformation will be both a compromise and a triumph, a victory and a defeat.

The Last Kingdom (BBC2/BBC America; 2015)

A broad, pulpy, gory historical adventure “drama” set in the Saxon England of the late 9th Century, The Last Kingdom is adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s novel series. Its protagonist, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), is son to a Saxon-English nobleman who is killed in battle by Danes, then raised by those Danes until they too are killed. A brash, bold, but tactically brilliant young warrior, Uhtred cuts a swath of violence and romance through the titular Kingdom of Wessex, which under the command of the savvy, piously Christian King Alfred (David Dawson) stands alone against the Viking hordes overrunning England.

Uhtred is an almost laughably old-fashioned pulp-fiction hero figure, and Dreymon gives him exactly zero nuance, shading, or depth. He wins every battle, beds every comely lass from fellow Saxon hostage (Emily Cox) to devout arranged noble wife (Amy Wren) to Cornish pagan mystic queen (Charlie Murphy), and overcomes even his considerable lapses of morality or judgement with breezy ease. He’s a mere device, of course, first for Cornwell and then for The Last Kingdom‘s showrunners to tell half-legendary historical events from one of the most pivotal moments of pre-Norman Conquest Britain with excitement and verve. This show has a bit of that, but as a post-Game of Thrones television take on medieval history, it boasts impressive historical authenticity but also weaker narrative interest and infinitely less fascinating moral implications. Is it vaguely oxymoronic to say that a historical drama set twelve centuries ago is a touch too old-fashioned? Maybe, but also, in this case, accurate enough.

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Categories: History, Reviews, Television
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