Friday, June 17, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Better Call Saul & Agents of SHIELD

Better Call Saul, seasons 1 and 2

I didn't really get into Breaking Bad until its final season was under way in 2013. It was made available for streaming, so I worked my way through the series in a few months. Like so many other people, I thought it was brilliant. Also like other people, I was a bit skeptical when, shortly after the series ended, a spinoff was announced that would focus on Saul Goodman, the lawyer in Breaking Bad whose shadiness is only matched by his ability to talk his way out of mortal danger.

Well, Saul's show has been excellent. While it does use a fun little framing device that gives us glimpses of Saul after the events on Breaking Bad, 99% of the show is a flashback to several years before the events depicted in its parent series. We get to see how Saul, whose original name was James "Jimmy" McGill, became the scuzzy lawyer who would eventually be there to help Walter White out of massive jams, both legal and otherwise.

The first season shows Jimmy's rise from a mailroom clerk in the law firm of his older brother - an immensely intelligent and successful attorney - to become a practicing lawyer. Over the course of the series, it becomes clear that Jimmy was not above cutting the occasional legal corner or operating in ethical gray areas, even in his earliest days of practicing law. He gives it an honest try for a short time, picking up low-rent cases at the local courthouse as a public defender. But he soon comes across a few more ethically dubious cases in which he might be able to "supplement" his modest income. This is when the show is at its most entertaining and compelling. Yes, there is plenty of comedy in seeing Jimmy channel his inner P. T. Barnum while fast-talking oft-deserving rubes, but he is never made out to be a clown. The show spends enough time on his background and relationships to humanize him well beyond the 2-dimensional sleaze who was introduced on Breaking Bad.

A few familiar faces from Breaking Bad show up, and Mike
becomes a semi-regular. The already-fascinating character
becomes a major draw as the series moves forward. 
The first season also has the strength of featuring plenty of great characters beyond Saul (before he was Saul). His on-again-off-again girlfriend and fellow lawyer, Kim, is well-rounded and tough. His afflicted brother is both the bane of Jimmy's existence and his cross to bear. The various criminals whom he meets are everything you would expect from the writers of Breaking Bad, and we get the joy of seeing Mike Ehrmentraut's return. Mike was always a compelling character in Breaking Bad, but he necessarily had a limited role. In Saul, he gradually becomes second only to Jimmy himself in terms of screen time. He has some great moments in this first season which more than justified his being brought back.

The second season carried on very well. It ratcheted down the humor a bit in favor of a bit more tension and drama. Jimmy gives an earnest try and being a "straight" lawyer, when Kim works out an incredibly sweet deal for him at a highly respected and welcoming law firm. Seeing Jimmy try to operate within and around the standard rules of ethical practises is plenty of fun, but it once again isn't displayed merely for humor. Jimmy's struggles to fit in start to reveal aspects of his character and nature which are often sad and even tragic.

While the second season finale played more like a lead-in to season 3, it was still a great sophomore chapter in a show that has more than justified its existence as a spin-off. I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to go without re-watching Breaking Bad, with Better Call Saul being such an excellent prequel story.

Agents of SHIELD, season 3

It didn't finish quite as strong as the previous 2 seasons, but this was still an enjoyable 22-episode run.

The previous season ended with a very memorable showdown between the newly-revealed Inhumans and Agent Coulson's SHIELD team. The third season picks up not long after, with Inhumans remaining the focus of fears and hopes of various and powerful factions.

The general arc begins with Coulson and his team trying to ease U.S. government fears about Inhumans, while simultaneously attempting to recapture Grant Ward. As the last vestiges of Hydra are eliminated, a secretive group within the nefarious organization emerges to reveal that Hydra was originally founded as a quasi-religious order which awaited the return of an alien life-form that would eventually take over Earth. Coulson's team expands to enlist several newly-discovered Inhumans, and this enhanced team faces off with the extra-terrestrial conqueror.

The season was another solid one, though it didn't finish as strongly as the first two seasons. In fact, I feel as if the first half of the season was the stronger half. The maneuvering between Coulson and the U.S. government featured some compelling, political plot twists. Even more entertaining, though, was the pursuit of Ward and the attempts to rescue Gemma Simmons, who had been sucked into the obelisk discovered in season 2. Simmons and Fitz make great strides as characters in this season, which is one of the most rewarding parts of the show. Plenty of other TV series would have been content to let these two remain as "the awkward nerds" for at least four or five seasons before possibly allowing them to mature. In this season, however, we get some very real and some very organic development from both of them.

Other characters were a slightly mixed bag, but mostly compelling. More time is given to Mack, whom I generally like but whom I sense the writers haven't completely figured out how to round out. Coulson and Mae are in full-stride, and Daisy has become a true force, literally and figuratively. The departures of Bobbi Morse and Lance Hunter were supposed to evoke sadness, but they were my two least favorite characters, so I had zero problems with it. Grant Ward was brought back in a fun way, and things were set up for a season finale that rivaled the first two seasons. And yet...

The confrontation between Ward/Hive and Daisy takes a
few unexpected turns that keep the show lively.
The season ended leaving me ever-so-slightly disappointed. Not that I found it bad, but perhaps the bar was raised so high after seasons one and two that I was hoping for too much. The seasons' story arcs did reach fairly satisfying conclusions, and we once again see that the writers are not afraid to kill off a character or two whom you thought would be around much longer term. I commend them for that. I think that perhaps this season suffered a bit from character overload. With several new-ish SHIELD team members, a slew of Inhumans, and also government agencies involved, there was a slight lack of emotional investment in anyone beyond Daisy (again). I think that the show has also now made it clear that, while they will kill off likable characters, there are the five "untouchables" of Coulson, Mae, Simmons, Fitz, and Daisy. It's not unlike how I felt when reading George R.R. Martin's Ice and Fire books years and years ago and realizing that anyone could die, as long as their names were not Daenerys, Tyrion, or Jon Snow. They are all still good stories, but it does lower the stakes when you all but know that certain characters are essentially impervious to death.

I also felt that, while the plot takes some nice turns, the show has relied to much on the "traitor in our midst" story-line too often. Each of the three seasons has included this element, and it grew a tad stale this third time around.

My nitpicks aside, this was another good season. I'm very glad that it has been renewed for a fourth. I do hope that they can pare down the cast a bit and perhaps focus on quality stories revolving around fewer characters, be they human or Inhuman. I'll always take quality over quantity.