…There Were People Here


High Noon (1952)

In the morning it was all going so well. Will Kane was the groom in an altogether lovely wedding. He’d been a good sheriff for a good while, and he led the town to a new dawn. He even made it through the days before his retirement, the most fatal time for his kind. We see a happy place, at a happy time, and he made it that way. He hangs up his badge and his gun after stealing a kiss from his new bride, ready to make a life with her.

But then the news comes in. It’s a report from somewhere else, at first incomprehensible. A murderer sent to the hanging post by the sheriff has been pardoned. He’s on a train, and he’s heading into town. The town had caught wind of the notion, before, they’d heard a man who should have hung got his sentence commuted, to life in prison. But they hadn’t paid it much mind, hadn’t reckoned on a pardon. It wasn’t something to bother them. Then the telegram arrives, too late to do anything about it, and there’s a specific time now you can point to when the consequences are going to show up. It’s printed on a train schedule, and it’s for certain – the kind of truth you hear in stories. The kind you can rely on. A man is coming to town at high noon, and he’s going to kill a man who got married that morning.

Curiously, things in the town remain pretty calm. There’s no great flight to the plains. People retreat indoors, if at all. Folks don’t panic; they accommodate. They rationalize. No one really wants any part of it, unless there’s a reason to care, or money to be made. The barber, who builds coffins in the back of the parlor, picks up production, gauging that business might increase. New information is always an opportunity. The town reacts like the coming of certain evil is something to size up, not to reject out of hand. There’s even a small delight in the spectacle, and in the whispered talk that the sheriff really had been asking for it over the years.

Kane isn’t sure what to do. He thinks about leaving, but decides he can’t. He seeks help from a judge, his co-equal partner in the administration of justice, the accomplice to what was not a crime. They arrested and sentenced a murderer for what he was. It must have stood for something, the sheriff suggests. The judge neatly folds an American flag, stows the scales of justice, and gathers his law books, before heading out. He thinks staying is stupid. The judge has everything he needs to set up shop somewhere else. He leaves town, in search of the next retail storefront. One place is as good as the other for what he has to sell.

The judge is one of a long series of people who decline to offer Kane help. We still haven’t met the villain, who we keep being told is on a train, coming from somewhere else.


High Noon is, not subtly, an allegory for Hollywood’s response to the red scare. With Joseph McCarthy riding high, Hollywood picked its sides, and backed a craven bully. Blacklisting ensued, the denial of work to people because of their political leanings, or their perceived political leanings, or for little reason at all. It was a brazen sell-out, made all the more painful for how unnecessary it was for a powerful institution to bow its head so low. High Noon, written by one of the men targeted, is a protest film, its message cloaked just enough by its setting to let it pass into theaters. Hollywood can’t resist a great message, at least when it is safe to do so, and when the madness had passed the industry canonized High Noon just as confidently as it had it caused it. The critique became a new self-congratulation.

Even though the film was made clear enough for people to see themselves reflected, there’s a lot more in High Noon than just watching a diagram fill itself in. More than anything, in High Noon, we encounter people. It’s nearly the whole of it, the tour of the town, and we meet damn near everyone. High Noon‘s town is a big enough place for there to be parts in it that don’t fit the text, and don’t serve the story, despite the allegory’s insistence. Helen Ramirez, a woman in a frontier town with no husband at her side, and a hotel to her name, learns what’s coming the town’s way. We see her interact with a series of visitors, who’ve learned the same, in parallel to Kane’s procession through the town. Like Kane, she has a certain distance from the rest. She loved Kane once, but it’s behind them now. Her interactions with Kane’s wife, the film’s only conversation between women, are understandably filled with barriers. She doesn’t fit in neatly, whether in aims or identity, but people keep wanting to draw her in to the organizing principle. Her lover jealously accuses her of pining for Kane, and Kane’s wife accuses her of being the reason he stayed. They can’t seem to define her beyond reference. She rejects the imposition at every turn. She says nothing but true things, and no one particularly listens to her.

Eventually, she’ll leave town, because she can. You get to do things or you don’t. Money is the difference-maker, for Ramirez, and maybe the most interesting aspect of her relationship to everyone she leaves behind. Keeping the money flowing is the pressing task for everyone left. When Kane, our sheriff, arrives to ask the help of the respectable portion of the town, interrupting a church service, a man of stature stands up and insists the adults reason it out. He sends out the children, the first clue he’s seeing a few steps ahead. The impromptu town hall features the few moments in the whole film when people express something like morality. They’re more articulate then the sheriff himself in describing why it matters to stand up, to not be cowed. Their words are moving, and they make you hope. But nothing anyone says matters, it’s merely a sham prelude. The self-appointed moderator listens to divergent views and then delivers a flip consensus. The sheriff did well, he says. Things are good here. We thank him. But we don’t want to get a reputation as the kind of place where this happens. You understand, Will. And the sheriff leaves, with no one to follow him.

There’s signs like this, all around, of the sheriff’s failure to tend to the flock while he was focused on the grass. The policy’s been great – the town is on the mend, it’s upwardly mobile, it’s safe to walk the streets, to raise a family, to believe in things. But now that the gains are there, the town worries about losing them. They just don’t want to mess up a good thing.

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It’s not like they’d get to feel heroic, even if they had joined. High Noon never much tries to sell us on the hero, after what we first learn of him. Kane doesn’t look cool anywhere past the first stretch. He doesn’t inspire our confidence, doesn’t win over the town. He’s increasingly desperate, clinging to hopes and long-shots. He asks an old lawman for help, or counsel, or deliverance. It goes the way these visits tend to go. “Sometimes prison changes a man” – Kane says, denying what’s coming, though seeming to know that’s wishful thinking. “It’s all for nothing, Will” is the lawman’s advice, when Kane walks out the door, still trying to do it for something.

His odds never get worse, even if they never get better. He can’t even grow in our eyes by comparison. There’s no collaboration, anywhere; no one, ever, anywhere in the whole town hands a gun over to the bad men. No one tells them where Kane is, no one betrays him. The most conveyed is a drink, to one of the outlaws, when he scouts out the town in search of some liquor. The town isn’t Kane’s enemy, but it’s not his friend, either. It’s just a place he realizes he never really knew.

When you watch High Noon today, you learn about the 1950s from what they thought about the 1860s. The post-Civil War west was the specific time chosen for High Noon‘s specific message, and it resonated more clearly to its specific audience. All we can know for certain is that it was meant to make you feel ugly, sitting there in the 1950s, seeing somewhere long ago and realizing you’re making the same mistakes. Precise pasts ground us in that way, what’s been ugly and what still resonates.

When Kane’s wife, Amy, speaks of her own past, one we never see, she says her father and brother were killed from gun violence. She mentions it to explain why she can’t care now about who is right or who is wrong. It isn’t any way for a person to live, surrounded by the kind of disagreement that leaves people dead. She’s Quaker now, committed to it enough to cause Kane some of his problems. When he came to the church door, only to be sent away empty-handed, the first thing the priest says, being a priest, is that he doesn’t come to the church very often anymore. Kane says he didn’t because his wife’s a Quaker. There isn’t a church in the town who says what she believes, or maybe there isn’t a church that wants her around. And here she is, just wanting her husband to leave the town to its own devices, a person with a genuine set of beliefs, indisputably correct in her version of what a good world would look like.

The priest takes a similar view, but with an important difference. He makes no call for non-violence, he just won’t endorse killing. But he’s in a Western, and he ignores what’s around him. In that environment, rejecting the idea that violence has context means right can no longer call things wrong and be heard. And the result is that in the home stretch, the great shoot out, there’s no one left to help but Amy, who shoots someone through the back, through a window. Not someone, mind you – a man come to town to murder. But also someone, a person. She throws her beliefs away, for reasons of her own, in a town that discards principles for reasons that are all too clear. She acts because no one else would. It doesn’t register as a triumph.


When they told him the train was coming, and the time it was due, Kane learned everything important. He keeps getting asked what he’s doing, what he’s after. The one time that Kane adequately explains himself, he says something amazing. “… I came here for help because there are people here.” He thought more of the town, it’s why he took the time saving it in the first place. The pained expression he encounters are what life looks like when that belief no longer has common purchase.

It’s all like this, in High Noon, in the town, elsewhere, the weird evasions and justifications. And we see, on the screen, how little Kane can call on, when his town is put to the test. Through it all, as the town fails to prepare, or prepares for failure, the posse waits at the edge of town, given the leisure to check their shoes, check their guns, plot their moves, size up what’s new, get drunk on the job. They get bored. They’re given time to get bored, in a movie whose plot lasts about an hour. We’re given time to see it.

The barber was right, and four coffins are ready for use at the end. The sheriff won’t be in one. But when he lives there’s no meaning to it. The collective purpose that murderers don’t get to run things has been abandoned. His existence matters not to the people around him but to the people watching him a century later, secure in their seats. But the sheriff is as distant from the audience as he is from his own town. He’s just a scared man who lucks out, and any relief he feels is not ours. He planned to leave town as a concession to his new marriage, before he learned what was coming. He bolts now without the slightest hesitation. There’s no new round of goodbyes. The sheriff drops his badge, and a man leaves town.

There’s a lot to dislike about stories demanding to be read one way. But they make it easier to see what you’re seeing. And sometimes allegories jump the tracks. Sometimes things repeat themselves. Commentaries come unstuck in time. An hour becomes a lifetime, a past becomes a present. They forget that, we forget that, and how can you blame them, us, for thinking differently? In the morning it was all going so well.

Dialogue: Mario McKellop on Better Call Saul


Better Call Saul aired its ten-episode first season this spring. The show, a spinoff from Breaking Bad with Bob Odenkirk in the title role, earned a warm critical reception and was renewed for a second season even before it aired.

Saul‘s first season seemed a great point for discussion. To do it justice, I spoke with TV critic Mario McKellop, who was amazingly generous with his time and thoughts.

What follows is our back-and-forth. And for fair warning, spoilers abound for both the first season and Breaking Bad.

Eric (EM):   At their start, spin-offs have to strike a careful balance. On the one hand, they have to stake out their own identity. Maybe more importantly, they have to show that they’re staking out their own identity. Even before they’re sure what kind of show they are, or want to be, they have to define themselves through some separation from their predecessor.

At the same time, spin-offs have to provide comfort and signal familiarity. They’re asking audiences to place trust in a new premise, and to justify this they have to show that they can deliver again what they used to be selling.

I think Better Call Saul approaches this balance by going for familiar technique and different concerns. The sensibility is the same for the things that most made Breaking Bad feel like Breaking Bad: shifting chronology, the comfort with long scenes and uneven structures, the commitment to treating television compositions like cinema, and treating the smaller scale less like a budget imposition and more like a spur to creativity.

But for all the familiarity in presentation, the interests here seem remarkably different. Nothing about the show feels like it has an organizing “hook” in the way Breaking Bad always did. The plan feels far less determined. And to the extent it’s interested in questions of character, it seems driven far more by the internal than by the external. Jimmy is less a predefined anchor figure and more a point-of-view character, even if we come to know quite a lot about him. What exactly the show is trying to put into view, though, seems far less murky and subtle than Mr. Chips to Scarface.

Did you feel like the first episodes were directing themselves more to new viewers, or to Breaking Bad fans? And do you think it struck a balance in what it was trying to do?


Mario (MM):   In answer to your first question, I think Better Call Saul is aimed at Breaking Bad fans, and if other people come along for the ride, that’s great. The show’s first episode lays out a foundation for the series in the way most TV pilots do. You get to know Jimmy and the world he inhabits, you’re introduced to his brother Chuck and the presumably series spanning question about whether or not Jimmy can turn over a new leaf. If you’ve never seen a single episode of Breaking Bad, I think you could get through most of the first episode without having to consult Wikipedia.

The thing is, all of that stuff is secondary to the big question the show poses for long-time fans, which is how did Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman. The sad, conflicted guy we see in Better Call Saul is so different from the boisterous, all-in consigliere we know from Breaking Bad that you just have to keep watching to find out what happened to precipitate such a drastic change. And since we know where the character ends up in, we also have to wonder what happens to the show’s supporting cast, most of whom would be horrified to see the man Jimmy will inevitably become.

Also, if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, would the opening episode’s flash forward make any sense? Would the big reveal at the end of the first episode or the middle of the desert showdown in the second episode have any impact if you weren’t familiar with Tuco? I think the show provides enough context as to not be inscrutable to new viewers, but it works best if you already know the world. The fact that a show called Better Call Saul follows a character named Jimmy suggests that its producers know that the series is playing to a preexisting audience.

I think a lot of the show’s appeal lies with how it fills in the blanks. We know that Mike comes to work for Saul, but we didn’t know how that relationship came to be. We also know that Saul is familiar with Gus, but weren’t didn’t know how he got entangled in New Mexico’s drug trade.

In that way, Better Call Saul operates similarly to the Star Wars prequels in that it fills in details that were only alluded to in the original series, despite being very different in tone. Over time, Saul may define itself outside of Breaking Bad, but as of its first season, it’s a subordinate work. That’s not say that the show is bad. It’s very well-crafted and Bob Odenkirk and the rest of the cast give uniformly excellent performances. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Better Call Saul is one of the better fill-in-the-blanks properties to come down the pike in a long while.

Do you think the show is overly reliant on Breaking Bad references? And is Jimmy McGill a compelling character right out of the gate, or does it take you some time to warm up to him?


EM:   So far, I don’t think the show’s relying too much on Breaking Bad references. I’d be worried if the show provided moments that depend for their resonance on call-backs to BB moments or iconography, or if it had turned out to be a season-long exercise in laying Easter Eggs. Your point about the title, though, settles any argument about whether the show is operating, or even trying to operate, like an independent entity. Better Call Saul actually puts an interesting spin on an old convention: most major spin-offs feature the name of the spin-off character. Here it provides the most explicit tie back to the predecessor, and the most coherent organizing principle the show has going for it. It’s a reminder, and a promise, about where this is heading.

Even if BCS isn’t necessarily finding itself obscured in the shadow of Breaking Bad, though, having the older work in mind does have odd effects. So much of how Breaking Bad veterans read the show will be colored by what we know about where Jimmy ends up, and what he gets involved in. Those threads aren’t a direct presence, most of the time. But we know how things tend to go in this shared universe, and you’re right to key in on the embedded promise that most of what we’re seeing here is going to meet a decisive end. The major question I don’t think we can answer yet is whether it’s the same moral universe, as well, and what that will mean for our lead.

At the same time, there’s a lot of freedom here, even with the eventual intersection lying down the road. I always look to opening credits for what they can tell us about the status quo of a series, and BCS gives us a lot in a short time. Though it’s not the complete blank slate of the Lost credits (still the best choice Lindelof and Cuse ever made), it provides no constraint whatsoever on what kind of show this can evolve into, even tonally. (Compare Breaking Bad, which could never get away from chemistry/meth even amid the occasional gesture toward Walter or Jesse calling it quits). All BCS gives us is a sense of place, and a clever disarming of prestige intentions through the total lack of taste. I wouldn’t put it past Gilligan to be threading a narrative through the disconnected images (even if that’d be too much of a repeat of Breaking Bad‘s stuffed animal in the pool). But even if he doesn’t, it’s a chance to establish a certain VHS-decrepit milieu without boxing in the approach they can take.

Especially interesting, too, that our lead isn’t even in the credits. You asked about my impressions of him, and I don’t know how anyone could be rooting against the guy. He’s not a “difficult man” in the recent and famous fashion. To the extent a character like this is going to rub anyone the wrong way it would primarily be through incompetence. Yet the show does a fairly good job of establishing that Jimmy is relatively sharp and relatively adept. Combine that with the ready allegiance to an underdog, and that’s always going to be enough for a rooting interest. He’s not the smartest guy in the room, but he’s also got a backbone, and that’s enough.

Of course, I’d prefer the writers to veer away from him crossing lines of professional ethics and responsibility quite so consistently, which is probably just where I’m coming from. Arguably though there’s more fun to the storytelling when he stays inside the lines. Put another way, I find the frantic letter-writing in the bathroom more interesting than him agreeing to destroy a detective’ notes. But we’ll see where it goes.

The show also deserves real credit for keeping an interest throughout without much recourse either to sex or violence, a contrarian choice for a cable show to make. Our only real romance is a few half-hearted flirtations from Jimmy with Kim. And really the most violent things get is a few broken bones for the skateboard scam artists.

Except, of course, for “Five-O,” our little crime film, which has a real body count. The story felt like it was at the level of sophistication of one of the old Lost flashbacks. It’s well worth it for the incredible concluding monologue from Jonathan Banks. Some critics brought up the legitimate question of whether the episode works at all without trading on what we know about Mike from the old show; and certainly letting one character just talk at length felt all too familiar. For all that this felt like a more morose version of the already grim “Half Measuresspeech, though, the jarringly “parachuted in” aspect were the mortal consequences. I wonder if the writers, by focusing on Mike, fell into old patterns, and didn’t register that shooting people for the first time should really be a bigger deal relative to the tone of the show so far. Though I wonder if Saul‘s ability to keep our interest without lurid detail is in part because it can trade on a real level of off-screen menace the text of the thing hasn’t actually built on its own.

What did you think of “Five-O,” and do you think the first season has given us a sense of what is characteristic of this show? Did you come away with an episode or scene that most stood out for you? And seriously: how great is Jonathan Banks?


MM:   Man, I love “Five-O.” I think it’s the best episode of the season that wasn’t written by one of the show’s creators. The Lost comparison you made is dead on. The best parts of that show were the genre-hopping flashbacks. It also reminded me of The X-Files, specifically the episodes of that show that weren’t focused on the alien conspiracy at all and had a very different tone than most other episodes in the season, like “Bad Blood” and “Hungry,” both of which were written by Vince Gilligan.

Though it has the same thematic underpinnings, “Five-O” doesn’t really feel like the rest of the series. For one thing, Jimmy not being the focus of the narrative means that everything’s much quieter. Most episodes of Better Call Saul are filled with verbiage and color, which is fitting as it reflects Jimmy as a character. In “Five-O,” there’s no small talk and it’s lit like a ‘70s film noir, which feels totally appropriate for Mike.

And as you mentioned, the violence in “Five-O” is unlikely anything else in the first season. Jimmy has a real aversion to violence; so it’s a big deal when Tuco brutalizes those skaters, but it’s just another part of life for Mike. I suspect that Jimmy coming to understand the utility of violence will be a big part of his transition into Saul. As we saw play out over six seasons of Breaking Bad, when you step outside the bounds of the law, you invite violence into your life.

Tone and visuals aside, “Five-O” fits right in with BCS thematically. Jimmy spends most of the first season desperately trying to prove he’s not the two-bit hustler he was and will inevitably become again. Mike spends it trying to walk on the straight and narrow, but he can only put off the inevitable for so long. Just as pride won’t let Jimmy play the part of the honest lawyer, Mike’s guilt draws him back into the same world of corruption and violence that got his son killed.

If you’ve never seen Breaking Bad, “Five-O” probably doesn’t hit as hard, but it’s a devastating hour of television, even if you’ve never seen any of those characters before because Jonathan Banks is the man. He’s fantastic throughout the episode, but that ending monologue is why people make the argument that TV is better than film right now. It’s not true, but the way Banks’ voice cracks when he says “I broke my boy” will make you believe it anyway. My hope is that as BCS goes on, we get more episodes like ‘Five-O”, beautiful little one-offs that inform character rather than move the plot forward, but are essential to the narrative all then same.

Aside from all of “Five-O,” the scene that really sticks with me in BCS is the end of “Pimento.” The Mike stuff in that episode is too goofy for my taste, but the conversation Jimmy has with Chuck is heartbreaking. I figured that Chuck was behind Saul’s persona non grata status with HHM in “RICO,” but it was devastating to watch that reveal play out. For the first time, I really understood why he felt the need to turn his back on the idea of ever being a good man. I also think it’s Bob Odenkirk’s best moment on the show.

So, what do you think of Jimmy’s relationship to Chuck, and what do you think of Chuck as a character? Is all of his talk about the sacredness of the law real or is it a justification for his egotism?


EM:   Even before anything Chuck was revealed to have done, I think BCS indicated that what Chuck was saying wasn’t anything the showrunners actually believed. The show didn’t commit the classic Sorkin sin of providing competing arguments their least compelling articulation, but mostly because there isn’t a worldview underlying his words that the writers has any investment in, whether to prove or rebut. Everything he advanced about law in general or his profession in particular was for telling us what he was like rather than signaling what the show cared about.

Nonetheless, what Chuck said and what he believes has a direct relationship to the most sincere statement the first season has to make. Chuck does have a certain integrity, though misplaced. And what’s really moving about that last stretch of “Pimento” and the final act of the season is that his judgment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He takes a dim view toward Jimmy’s character; Jimmy decides he’s right, and proves it. If Chuck had ever believed in Jimmy then he’d have never done the various things that validated his pessimism. It’s difficult to say Chuck is wrong, and you also can’t say what he did was right. That’s a complex and evocative place for the show to end up. And when the show conveying that message is a spin-off premised on the inevitability of a certain chain of events occurring, the self-fulfilling quality has a real resonance.

Even if I didn’t think the character quite worked as an argument, if he was one, I thought what McKean did with Chuck was fantastic, and I think he makes a really interesting foil for Jimmy. On a performer level the showrunners were smart to have found the rare character actor who can go toe-to-toe on intelligence with Odenkirk. But the villainous turn also deserves real credit for being something that the first half of the season really isn’t devoted to setting up. Then it becomes all too clear; though I wasn’t quite on the ball enough to realize it by “RICO,” by mid-“Pimento” the shape of what we were looking at was set. The show held a card, and waited to play it.

Now that they have, there’s no space for “sympathetic Chuck” left in the second season; he’s past our allegiance. In a way it reminds me of Tony’s mother on The Sopranos. Our thematic interlocutor has revealed a master scheme and alienated our lead, but is still left hanging around in the world of the show. It’ll be interesting whether the writers decide to just embrace the villainous turn or try to mitigate it; I do tend to think the first approach would work a lot better. The idea that this guy can serve as a conscience for Jimmy is a non-starter by now.

Attention to master-plotting, though, might not be the best way to take in this series, and your “X-Files” comparison gets better the more I think about it. “Monster of the week” versus “mythology” trade-offs are right at the heart of the twin masters this series is going to have to serve going forward. The only reason I’d question how relevant it is to Saul is not the creators’ intentions but the network’s imperatives. I have no clue whether AMC would ever allow the series enough space and rope for the writers to feel free to do the one-offs with any frequency. If anything they’re going to feel pressure to connect to Breaking Bad more and more, if and when cancellation approaches. In that sense there’s an odd inversion compared to X-Files, where the mythology episodes will feel, to this series, like detours and pauses, while the episodes focusing on what this series has carved out on its own will feel more organic.

“Pimento” is all sorts of interesting for that reason, too. It emerges quite naturally from BCS‘ own storytelling. But it lays the groundwork necessary for the end of the season, “Marco,” to really land. In most senses its conclusion, with Jimmy seeming to reject any redemptive aspect to the first season, felt abrupt. More a moment dictated by the series needing to continue rather than any narrative necessity internal to BCS‘ own storytelling. The effect, however, combined with “Pimento,” is to signal that other people’s expectations can frustrate even the best intentions. And though I don’t want to read the whole first season as a frustrated commentary on the limitations imposed on spin-offs, damn if that’s not an available takeaway for the cynical viewer.

Everything you say (accurately) about the sincere strength of “Five-O,” though, brings to mind what the fuss is about. If this is going to be a delivery mechanism for great scenes and a few standout episodes from a creative team we really love, isn’t Better Call Saul all upside? Is there anything this show could do that could really render it a failure, or worse, seriously hurt its predecessor? Or is this all a bonus round, and should we stay content with whatever wins it can scoop up before time runs out?

MM:   You made excellent points about how the show position’s Chuck’s betrayal and how he articulates his beliefs. Like Walter White’s increasingly unconvincing claims about staying in the drug business for his family, Chuck cut Jimmy’s legs out from under him because he’s ashamed of him and the idea that they might in any way be equals appalls him, not because of some need to protect the law. As opposed to Sorkin, Gilligan and Gould articulate their beliefs through object lessons in what not do. Interestingly, their lessons are often about the importance of honesty and the virtue of putting aside one’s pride to accept help, or put another way, how being a difficult man won’t save you.

As to your questions, I wouldn’t mind if Better Call Saul ends up being all bonus round. I’d love to see more of Mike careful outmaneuvering a range of people who never see him coming and I’d really be interested to see how he came to join Gus Fring’s organization. This isn’t information that would change my feelings about Breaking Bad one way or another, but I feel like there’s a potential in that particular piece of marginalia. I’d also be into watching a season of BCS that went full on Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and showed us what Saul was doing through over the course of Breaking Bad. For the sheer formal challenge of pulling something like that off, if nothing else.

Ultimately, we know where Jimmy is going, and while the process of how he got from point A to point B is interesting, I think people will start losing interest in the show if it’s just Jimmy feeling ambivalent about his amorality for years on end. For me, Breaking Bad went from engaging to must watch in the early part of the third season, when Walt really decided to go all in. The only thing that would really ruin the show for me is if we start seeing characters from the original show pop up all the time for no particular reason. I kind of feel that way about Tuco in the first season, but I can see how he could be woven into the narrative in a way that makes sense. But if Jimmy bumps into Walt at the car wash, I’ll start losing interest with a quickness.

So, now that we’ve identified one of Better Call Saul’s greatest strengths, let’s talk about weaknesses. I felt that Kim was a pretty underdeveloped character. Obviously, the show is about Jimmy, but almost all of the show’s other regular character had more to do than she did. I really liked the ambiguity of her character in the premiere, but after that she settled into a very underwritten, Skyler White sort of place. I don’t to paint Gilligan as some kind of Pizzolatto type because he wrote Scully very well and he obviously tried to course correct with Skyler near the end of Breaking Bad, but the guy seems to have something of a woman problem. I don’t know if it’s about not wanting to get something wrong or a Sorkin-esque blindness to his own deficiencies, but there’s something’s fundamentally wrong when most of the recurring characters have more of an arc than one of the leads. And though I dug the show’s refusal to do a case of the week procedural thing, I didn’t care for the Kettlemans.

What’s your take on Kim? What didn’t work for you this season? Were there any characters in the show that didn’t work for you, or even whole episodes?


EM:   I think we line up in our sense of the mischief we’d like to show to get up to, what opportunities it might have; and, more pessimistically, what would move the whole exercise from interesting to embarrassing. Potential like that, I think, is evident in Kim. I’ll say this about her: though she’s underdeveloped, she hasn’t begun with glaring problems the show will have to fix. She’s a reserved character, but not necessarily passive, and she has an independent perspective. I didn’t hear any Skyler alarm bells when she showed up, or as the season progressed.

Which is a good thing with a Breaking Bad offshoot. I agree that Gilligan and his team never had a Pizzolatto problem, but it certainly had a problem in finding ways for its women characters to channel the show’s real strengths. It was more a failure of craft than a situation where I question the underlying attitude, but the failure to bring to bear the same care can become an underlying attitude, and the difference can prove academic in practice. The biggest problem was that Breaking Bad never really had a subtle woman character, and its real successes were those that leaned into broad strokes. Lydia worked great, but she was a concept and a comedic rhythm more often than not. I couldn’t say for sure, but Marie’s great moments were all laughs. And Skyler hardly ever got one, which just laid bare how little the show ever knew what to do with her. With that history in mind, and sharing your dislike for the Kettlemans, Betsy is a disaster. She’s arguably a direct descendant of the more positive traditions of BB women characters, in being an engine for laughs, but she’s still recognizably a self-justifying wife hen-pecking her husband. It’s surprising to me that she got off the page in that form, and this team isn’t at the point where they get the benefit of the doubt.

All this is a way of saying that for Kim to be a character with room to grow sure beats the alternative. More specifically, like a lot of things with BCS, I think my opinion of her so far is going to depend a lot upon the second installment. If they didn’t have time to fill in the blank spaces because they had a lot else they had to do and set up, but it’s around the corner, then that’s fine. If it turns out that they just don’t have an interest in her beyond a plot function and a person for other characters to talk to, that’s a much bigger issue. (And much of this could apply equally to Mike’s daughter-in-law). Beyond her gender, though, Kim’s also an important test case for the show’s ability to fashion a sympathetic character from scratch, rather than trading on our past associations. We’re already giving Jimmy and Mike credit, and BB has a way with villains. Giving us someone new to root for would be the more impressive feat.

If there’s anything that’s a concern, then, it’s that the more minor new faces are showing similar issues: either flawed and familiar or generic and unformed. Jimmy’s Chicago friend, who meets his untimely end as the season wraps up, seemed to exist solely for narrative purposes, and his death didn’t hit me at all. Even if it’s true that all characters exist for narrative purposes, the show didn’t even feel the need to hide the machinery. More than anything else, even big-picture relations to its forebearer, I’d like BCS to have more people show up who feel like they have lives they’re living independent of their intersection with Jimmy. That’s the big challenge for BCS in all its qualities, really. It has to establish that there’s more going on than service to something else.

I can’t think of any episodes that fell flat, though, and if anything the consistency is quite impressive. Let’s cast a wider net on comparisons. Does this show’s first season remind you of any other shows? Is this more Lost or more Parks & Rec—are we in for a refinement and an expansion, or a wholesale shift in approach? And is there anything Saul can tell us about what the landscape is like for television right now? We’re typing this up with the last of the golden age shows, Mad Men, in sight of its series finale, and going out quite like itself. Is BCS tending the flame of the old ways, or representative of something new? Where is it headed, and is it going to have some company along the way?


MM:   I don’t know if you’ve listened to the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast, but it’s useful in understanding certain aspects of the show. For example, Vince Gilligan spoke at length about his infatuation with the Betsy character, and he repeatedly mentions that he wanted to be dominated by her. So, like Sorkin, he clearly has a type and his predilections have blinded him to the fact that his female characters are seriously unwritten. As such, I can’t see Kim coming into her own in really way. She’ll probably end up getting some stuff to do à la Maria’s shoplifting or Skyler’s affair with Ted, but I don’t think she’s ever getting her own “Five-O.” Still, Gilligan isn’t the chief creative force this time around so maybe things will be different.

I totally agree with you about Marco. I appreciated the nuance of Mel Rodriguez’s performance (the way he couldn’t really explain the particulars of his boring day job was well done), but I sort of felt like Marco was analogous to Bai Ling’s character on Lost and the pinkie ring was Jack’s tattoos. I understood from the first episode of BCS that Jimmy had done something so bad that he couldn’t ever go back to his old life in Cicero. That lily didn’t need gilding.

I am inclined to think that Better Call Saul will go the way of Parks & Rec in that it will refine and redefine itself rather than spend the rest of its run trying to recapture the magic of its first season like Lost did. Breaking Bad had a similarly good, but not great first season and only became the version of the show that it’s remembered as in its second season. I expect Saul will expand its world along similar lines and I expect Tuco to become to a galvanizing force in Jimmy’s life as he once was in Walter White’s.

It’s harder to figure out what changes BCS will affect in its second season because the change that BB underwent was one of pacing. A lot of that show’s first season was paced slowly and hesitantly, mirroring Walter’s gradual transformation into Heisenberg. Things picked up speed as he delved into his new life as a criminal because in that line of work, if you don’t move fast and act decisively, you die. Given how Norwegian slow TV Jimmy’s journey was at times, I’m thinking his embrace of his true nature will take a good while longer. That being the case, the show will have to get us reasons to really care about what’s happening with Mike, Chuck and Kim beyond dramatic irony.

While I enjoy BCS A great deal, I do wonder if its success will lead to further spin-offs or revivals of great shows. I look at the return of Twin Peaks with equal amounts of fascination and dread. I thought the fourth season of Arrested Development was great, but I don’t know if that story needed a depressing epilogue. I’d absolutely watch Peggy Olsen, but I also appreciate that her story will end with Mad Men’s finale. Quality TV spin-offs are nothing new and one of America’s finest cultural institutions is a spin-off. But stories have meaning because they end. If Jimmy’s story is to have meaning, it’ll have to move past Walter White. I’m not at all sure that it will because the showrunners don’t seem interested in reach a certain point as opposed to circuitously examining the nature of morality. That’s an interesting and novel idea, but it’s a difficult second album idea, like making a movie about a bunch of sixties garage rock wannabes or a TV show about a surfer who may be the second coming of Christ.

Having worked as a TV recapper for a few years now, I have become disillusioned with the notion of the Golden Age of Television. As great as The SopranosThe WireBreaking Bad and Deadwood and are I don’t that they are good enough to balance out the existence of Toddlers and TiarasThe Bachelor and all of the mediocre crap that isn’t actually offensive, but is produced at such an accelerated rate and in such compromised fashion that any sense of quality control has long since been abandoned to accommodate the relentless demand for new content.

The Simpsons and Twin Peaks are two of the greatest TV shows ever and they once aired at the same time, but no one considers the early ‘90s to be the golden age of anything. I’m hopeful for the future because of things like Broad CityHalt and Catch FireHannibalRick and Morty and The Knick because they’re all amazing in different ways and because they feel like a rejection of some of the things that have preceded them. I need to see more of Better Call Saul before I can say whether it belongs in the past or the future.

We’re Here to Get There

The ten 2014 films I liked best. I didn’t do one of these last year; the 2012 list is here. Notes on what missed the cut.

Loosely speaking, I like them more as the list goes on. The top three could easily switch places, and they’re a cut above everything else.

Honorable Mentions: The GuestObvious Child


Events have a sequence, and we have a reason to care. We call the first, plot, and the second, story. Without the former, we have nothing to situate us, and nothing meaningful can gain purchase. Without a hook, things just happen.

Inherent Vice sure gives you a bouncing ball to follow, in Doc and the thread he pulls. Yet what we see in one place is not in conversation with what we see in another. Instead of reinforcing each other, the various scenes venture out on their own, and at every new start Doc, and the viewer, have to learn the rules all over again. These hard resets are a great recipe for the brand of absurdist comedy the film is deploying. It’s less helpful for bringing everything together. A sensibility and a shared universe only gets you halfway toward coherence; if you adapted the film back to words, you’d call it an anthology rather than a novella.

Two of the last entries can almost convince you otherwise. Twice, we watch people reunite after a long time apart. The first pair, our lead and his ex-lady, find each other in a scene of total vulnerability for the actors and bracing intimacy for the audience. The camera moves in close, ony barely able to contain two people in the frame. The second pair embraces with the same relief, yet in a doorway far in the distance. The moment is, in the abstract, accessible, but its specifics remain entirely private.

The rest is puns and dry humor in a place short on water, a warm cadence brought to a cold world, a merry melody in tribute to our hero, Doc. It’s not enough on its own, though those two make you wonder, when you see them reach beyond themselves. Being funny, being human: maybe the whole lunatic enterprise has a point after all.


A philosophical thought experiment unfolding like an unearthed Stanley Kubrick B-side, Enemy avoids the pitfall of many an “art” film: it’s clear what it wants to do. Its mind-game central motif feels both inexplicable and far from arbitrary; nothing else would have worked.

If you look past the conceit of two identical people, what we see is someone reach out to a person through the Internet, and the bad things happening afterward. This is far from abstract. Nothing could be more contemporary than terrifying realities existing where we never thought to look, thrown abruptly in our face. And any dread of a collective near future should include what occurs in venturing outside after too much time indoors.

Amid everything that rings true, the lectures are the only details that do not convince. The evidence that matters is tactile, visual, non-verbal. A palette of wan browns, sharp blacks, and sickly yellows, and the comparative technicolor of a man on a motorcycle. A tan on a ring finger. Shrieks.

A long look—poised between a sigh and a smirk.


The two great varieties of Tom Cruise are needy desparation and apex predator confidence. One of the many smart decisions Edge of Tomorrow makes is to provide a process for building from one to another.

Another: letting Emily Blunt go to work. Source Code already laid down the path of translating the structure of Groundhog Day from meditative comedy to propulsive science fiction. Including two people in the loop is the more impressive trick for opening up the storytelling. The constant shift betwen who knows more and who learns for the first time gives Blunt her own notes to play, a spectrum of resolve ranging from resignation to determination.

The riskiest call, though, and maybe the most clever, comes in making a metaphysical reset button a tangible destination. If endless repetition invites video-game-like-persistence in pursuit of personal transcendence, then you might as well make the boss battle an actual life and death battle over escaping the inevitable. And asking “why not” is the root of why Edge of Tomorrow is the rare blockbuster you don’t have to talk yourself into enjoying.

Making plot machinery literal, depicting the contents of a work actively trying to destroy the form, and refusing to believe that marines versus aliens has given all it can give: this is the brand of unhinged commitment that gets things done. And if the middle stretch charms more than the claustrophobic beginning or the slightly-burnt-out ending, it’s only appropriate. Under all the money is the beating heart of a road movie.


About as fun as a film can get where a dog gets murdered and this many people die, John Wick gets by on complete, unerring control. The filmmakers know what used to make pop comics fun to read, and provide a feast of lived-in surroundings, backstory, and character history to fill out the margins. And if first-unit directors have too long treated action as an afterthought, the folks in charge here know the most exciting approach to tending the flame is through a healthy dose of gasoline.

John Wick acts like it’s always been here, and that’s the most delightful part. People keep tossing around the main character’s name like we should know it already, and damned if it’s not earned branding by the close. There’s a rhythm announcing the man, his signature moves. Tap-tap, step, tap. Tap-tap, step, tap. A Morse Code transmission in an almost-forgotten language.


The King of Comedy with the screws turned, Nightcrawler sees an outsider sizing up a situation and proceeding forward on audacity and shamelessness. I could care less about its social commentary—Anchorman 2 has a more accurate and incisive look at media and public appetites. Yet you’re rarely ever going to see a story wind this beautifully around a central character. There’s the right sense of the difference between what the audience might think and what its subjects are thinking.

Having a firm grasp of the second matters far more, and Lou has a way about him. He speaks in About.com entries, and woe to the world if he ever discovers TED talks. For now, he has found his place. And if the mark of a perfect match of character and story is usually to exhaust both in the process, then the way in which this one ends on a “to be continued” makes a certain deranged sense. The space ahead marks an implied threat. Let him have screens, or he’ll move somewhere else.


The most salient criticisms of Whiplash: its subject didn’t have to be drumming, and its shaky grasp on specifics of jazz or musical history gives this away. In other words, the central purported “point” is basically arbitrary, and fails to prove itself on the ground it stakes out.

The first response: whether Fletcher is “right” or “wrong” is a boring question; Whiplash is not a boring movie; and this should tell you it’s not offering an answer.

The second: it did have to be drumming. The most jarring way to tell a story in the milieu of elite education and rarified culture is to center it on grueling physical labor. Tell this story somewhere else and you could have the raising of a sail to catch the wind, someone driving an axe into wood, a hard left to a square jaw. In this set, you get blood on your hands during your residency, not because of something you’re working on. Drumming until his hands get cut up, driven to furious limits, Andrew gives us the one thing and the other, like nothing else would.

For all this, the fact and nature of a character’s endurance need not be didactic, and mistaking the way Whiplash connects process to result for a guidebook or a worldview is an unfortunate error. Worse, you miss the ride.

You can tell how this one moves by the way it takes a breath. When Andrew and Fletcher pretend to break bread at a bar, the scene tips its hand as a false reconciliation far before the overt reveal. Sitting down to talk about their feelings isn’t how these two are going to bond, and it isn’t how they’re going to fight. It’s a medium inappropriate to their talents or their sensibilities.

Later, when there’s a chance to walk out the door? Most people would walk out, and most films would let them. Whiplash is about the people who don’t. The spellbinding result is a performance in a packed theater to an audience of one. The drummer’s head cranes up, the conductor leans down, and the curtain drops on a modern romance.


Scaling up from a focused statement of purpose to a sprawling crime epic, The Raid 2: Berendal has to both live up to its predecessor and prove itself among new peers. The first shot sends the same message telegraphed by the Chicago skyline in The Dark Knight. And the opening sequence features a character monologuing on ambition, before killing the one person saved in the first film.

What defines the aims here is less anything new to crime narrative and more the integration of this much action to the old structures. We’ve seen this story, one has to admit, yet we’ve never seen its beats dished out in quite this fashion.

On the other hand, come on. Few things in cinema can match seeing Iko Uwais, Gareth Evans, and company do their thing. Consistently varying weapons, settings, and approaches, Berendal draws itself taut in moment after moment where the filmmakers could get away with slack. A stunning car chase intercuts forward motion in open space with fists-of-fury punishment confined to one of the hurdling sedans, and you could plausibly substitute a half-dozen other sequences for what most impressed. There’s something here for any taste.

And if the expansion taking place is not without growing pains, Berendal mostly gets to where it wants to go. Two iconic henchmen’s lengthy introductions, seeming digressions at the time of their appearance, turn out to provide pre-game highlight reels for the evil dream team Rama will have to take down. Yayan Ruhian, who played an unstoppable force in the first, reappears in a short story all his own, ending with a chance to test his skills in a crowded club and a turning point in the central gang conflict. The whole movie is like this: with rare exceptions, its indulgences and action sequences have a role in the story, whether for stakes or forward motion. And of course, like the first, the action sequences themselves both have internal narratives and a cumulative build.

Serving two masters, like his surroundings, Rama is both man in the middle and army of one. Each role poses challenges. Through to the end, he achieves more than anyone could, and yet always finds himself more overmatched than ever before. Bloody and broken, cowering behind a couch, all enemies down save one, his reward is to fight a loaded shotgun. “Watch over me,” he asked earlier, addressing himself to someone above. You could hardly look away.


No more than ten minutes into We Are the Best!, I was rooting for the two lead girls more than I’ve ever rooted for anyone. When they form a trio, all the more. When a line like “we will influence her away from God” can sound authentic to a character, land a laugh, and somehow read unapologetically sweet, then you’re in good hands.

Specificity carries the day. You come to recognize the words Bobo would speak, the nonsense Klara won’t tolerate, the way Hedvig will process what she sees. Every single moment follows the authentic logic of people their age. To grow confident without growing up, to advance meaningfully at a time when most things conspire to keep you in place, asks a lot of a character. It asks even more of a story, and somehow, the confines of their lives by the end feel like no meaningful obstacle at all. Though the leads are at a time in their lives you can’t navigate without some missteps, the film never errs.

No jail can hold superheroes. And if they’re too young to scale the prison walls, they can shoot fireworks over them and raise a middle finger at the guards. All the better.


Genesis is the most important book in human thought and literature. And the first of a litany of indications that Arnofsky gets it, that Noah isn’t remotely fucking around, is in the film’s absolute obsession with children and fertility and lineage. People understand who they are by reference to who they came from. They outline and anticipate their futures based on likely unions. And at moments of life and death, the call is both to protect loved ones and to safeguard what they represent. A human race of ten generations has a small-enough family tree to make sense of all creation. Even a trace of the garden remains in their possession.

When Naameh asks her husband about the Creator, her concern betrays the proximity to an active God: “Will he help us?” When Noah replies, “He’s going to destroy the world.” it is not a yes or a no. This is the problem for everything going forward: finding a question suitable enough for such an overwhelming answer.

You don’t need Auerbach to recognize that words might not contain everything here. The script lays out its concerns and hesitations, and chews them over at length. The film blasts forward with pop-art confidence. The camera moves constantly on two axes, up-down and forward-backward, and only rarely left to right, the better to take in skies that look like dreams and vision-quests that tread on real ground. The effects clash wildly, like the design teams worked independently: angels encased in rock move in stop-motion style across a mixture of natural landscapes and CGI backdrops. Yet their every step progresses, and the drive does not falter.

By the close of the second act, the combination of the script’s subject and the film’s momentum brings the viewer to a place that should not be possible. A leader of a weary people delivers a rousing speech, calling on them to fight for their lives amid the end of the world. And a viewer will want him to fail, rooting for divine beings to slaughter humans, all to keep them from occupying an ark with more than enough space to hold them. The invaders will surely spare no mercy for those within, and perhaps those inside would not have killed if the situations reversed. Yet to cheer for genocide to avert murder is a curious place to arrive.

When the waters rise and the cries of the dying echo outside the vessel, Noah does the only thing he can: he tells a story. He lays out his best interpretation of the traditions available to him and the events he has witnessed. The story of humanity—up to that point, defined by the succession of generations—will now end. He and his family will be the last made in the image of God. It’s a logical and creative read. Thus, the crux of the film: if Noah kills two children, then the deaths of countless other children, and adults, will have a meaning and a justification; and if he spares these two children, then the other children and adults will have been killed for no reason at all.

His family can affirm, and we can perhaps believe, that those meant to be in the ark are “good” and the people who died are “bad.” But we’ve seen so little of the other people; and we know their ranks extend beyond a core band of rival warriors, to children and women and young and old, even if we hardly ever directly encounter them. Our glimpse of their supposedly unbridled savagery is almost certainly in the form of a dream. And most important of all, Noah does not believe there is a difference between those inside and those he has left to die. The love of his family premises itself upon a vision of some distinguishing goodness which he cannot affirm.

Yet he spares these two children, after leaving hundreds of them to die. The staggering inconsistency he cannot help but recognize marks a triumph, where a steadfast and humble consistency would have doomed all there is and would be. There is no better thing, in that moment, that he could do.

It is no difficult thing to recognize inherent contradictions in scripture. It is no easy thing to embrace them rather than willing them away. Noah does so without falling into the syncretic traps of so much purported spiritual work. And if the text of this one is heresy—and for the life of me, I don’t think it is—it is the real kind, a contrasting belief rather than an outright rejection.

Close Encounters might be the best film ever made about the effects faith can have on individual psychology; this one might be the finest ever recreation of the nature of Biblical text. It asks more of you. And in the mischievous wisdom of Hopkins’ Methuselah, in the shattering intensity of Jennifer Connelly in the final stretch, and in the eyes of a man necessary to his moment and exhausted by its demands, you see actors respond to material that demands everything they have.

Weird is one way to describe a place where nothing is normal, and exceptional is another. Noah may be deathly serious. It may possibly be insane. But this is more than a magnificent film. It’s a major argument. Pretenders past and present get slain here and laid to rest, be they works of art or ideas about life. And this one will last until the final high-definition digital image turns, once more, to dust.


A passenger looking out a window will feel the road, and see the world passing by. Milestones and landmarks and signposts will provide a sense of the progress toward a destination. When speed picks up, the blur of motion will still provide clues; and when things come to a stop, poised for motion in a new direction or a resuming of the path forward, the glimpse will resonate.

Driving will get you there, and you have something to take in on the way. Most of the time, it’s the right call.

Even when it spends time in cars, Boyhood walks. It makes all the difference.

End-of-Year Addendum


My 2014 favorite films list, with honorable mentions, is here. I saw about forty-five 2014 releases.

Both honorable mentions were difficult to leave off, The Guest especially so. Blue Ruin, Gone GirlLocke, and The One I Love were the only others I considered.

Films I didn’t see that would have had a good chance: American SniperCitizenfour, The GamblerGod’s PocketThe ImmigrantMaps to the StarsA Most Violent YearSelma.

Amazing individual stretches: the first 45 minutes of The Babadook, everything past the first 45 minutes of The Equalizer; twenty scattered minutes in Snowpiercer (overall a complete mess).

“We’ll agree to disagree”Housebound, The Rover

Probably good, though I couldn’t stand it: The Grand Budapest Hotel. I suspect whatever it’s doing with film history, on a level I can never comprehend, drove a lot of the appreciation. Yet what I can comprehend, its relation to early 20th century European history, felt morally abhorrent and a disservice to the man it’s dedicated to. I hope I come around on this someday, but for now, yikes.

Actually badA Walk Among the TombstonesFoxcatcherTop Five, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Most insane devotion to color contrast: The Drop

Finally: Birdman might be unlikely to hold up artistically, yet it’ll have an enduring shelf life as a time-capsule chronicle of how 2014 felt. Also an emphatically great movie if you read it as being about the experience of spending time in New York after living in California.

December Notebook


Critique of Religion and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann (1979); The Skeleton Twins (2014); White Heat (1949); Enter the Dragon (1973); Commando (1985); Top Five (2014); Enemy (2014); Housebound (2014); The Guest (2014); Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014); Network (1976); The Sweet Hereafter (1997); Inherent Vice (2014); Bringing out the Dead (1999); Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975); Obvious Child (2014); We Are the Best! (2014); Noah (2014); The One I Love (2014); The Rover (2014); Thief (1981); The Host (2006); The Babadook (2014)

I wrote an essay about Commando equal parts bizarre and sincere. Moreso than most of what I put up here there are evident seams. I still think this turned out better than it had any right to be.

Wrapped up nearly every 2014 film I felt was essential to see or rewatch; the year-end list will be up within a week. Films missed that I would have probaly liked: SelmaAmerican Sniper, The ImmigrantGod’s PocketA Most Violent YearThe GamblerCitizenfourMaps to the Stars. I only have so much time.

I launched The 2015 Watch List and got a head start on two entries. I’m excited about this. The fall was a conscious experiment in watching as many films as I could. I think it paid off. After 2015 I hope I can avoid ever needing to have that amount of volume, but I want to keep this up and cover the field.

White Heat getting made that year is unfathomable.

Walter Kaufmann and the three girls in We Are the Best! are my new heroes.

A Trip through the Armory


Commando (1985)

The bad guys in Commando have the world figured out.

They have lost power, and they want it back. To get it, they need a specific weapon, which powerful people have kept safe and hidden. They don’t know where, but they know something better. So the bad guys kill the weapon’s old colleagues, predicting the military, fearful for the safety of its prize, will rush to protect it. Their plan from there depends on only two assumptions, both of which prove accurate: fathers will protect their daughters, and this weapon can kill everything in its path.

The villains may err in assuming an instrument honed for covert action will be indifferent to the target, though you tend to wonder how much the weapon really cares. They may have failed to provide sufficient assurances about their captive’s safety. Yet they grasped the overall logic. This isn’t “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” The bad guys really give this a decent shot.


There are ways of being right. Making accurate judgments about the world is one. Being a gigantic dude is another. Before we learn his character’s name, Schwarzenegger emerges from the cover of Atlas Shrugged, axe in hand, in a sequence explicitly nodding to fascist aesthetics. When we see him go to work to rescue his daughter, we watch him “scything down ranks of lesser players.” His peers put up a real fight, or in the case of Sully, they pose a real pain to capture. Yet even the two close contests end with his opponents speared through the chest.

So often, villains fall prey to arrogance, yet here, they did not underestimate their opponent. Commando even suggests Bennett has orchestrated the film just to get a chance to see Schwarzenegger’s Matrix again. He wants the chance to prove a point, by taking down a symbol. And he knows it would mean something.

He doesn’t pull it off—though in his defense, no one has. Synonymous with violent action films for two decades of American cinema, impossibly wealthy, twice elected governor of the country’s most populous state, Schwarzenegger cut a figure so large senators tried to pass an amendment to let him become even more powerful. Today he walks unhindered by either a credible series of accusations of sexual assault or his less serious but confirmed sins as a serial and elaborate adulterer. And he stepped from the governor’s mansion right back into major films, to resuscitate franchises and sensibilities adrift in his absence.

The thing is, I like Commando. That’s not enough. Schwarzenegger resonates at our particular cultural moment as a singularly atavistic figure, for reasons directly connected to and preceding the character we see on-screen. One of two prevailing errors in this awful year is mistaking “I like it, and I want to keep it” for an argument.

All kinds of entertainments make people uncomfortable with the social perception of their personal appreciation. Reasons get thrown out to preserve cognitive dissonance, most of them thin cover for an entitlement. Few works, however, are essential, and “a culture that crumbles into dust when some unabashedly cruel aspect of it is removed is not a culture worth preserving in the first place.” Existence and attachment do not provide arguments with independent moral force. Social progress entails, for anyone with a stake in the status quo, the loss of some things we hold dear to, for failings we can no longer defend.

Sufficient reasons exist for Arnold’s dismissal. Perhaps we should learn to say no. The second prevailing error is the idea that this gets us anywhere.

He does not care.


The first person to lay out the logic of a situation to Arnold gets shot in the head. The villains who size up Arnold and make accurate observations about the world die shamed and broken. When this happens, Commando expresses a worldview.

It also sets a tone, and one recognizable enough for the film to nod to its own obviousness. Cindy, a woman of color, correctly calls what she sees in front of her “macho bullshit.” Yet Commando‘s self-awareness marks a concession to etiquette, not a searching examination, and the former might be the least you can ask of the powerful. After all, “if your arguments didn’t amount to a wriggling out of the very critique that you’re making, would you still make them?

Commando doesn’t feel it has to apologize, and Arnold doesn’t either. Cindy, who Matrix has kidnapped, delivers one of the most charming “I have had it” speeches in cinematic history, demanding an explanation, and he brushes her off. Words fail to find purchase in others, and they also fail to suggest anything credible about the people using them. The militias in Commando, the private army of the exiled authoritarian thug, sneer bragging lines about cutting throats. Bennett, who knows what he has set in motion, finds them ridiculous, and adds, “if Matrix was here, he’d laugh too.” Sully, who tries to talk like someone cool, gets dropped off a cliff. “I lied” are the last words he hears.

No one’s explanations matter. When local police capture Matrix, he makes a futile attempt to invoke the higher authority of his military backers. It doesn’t work. Most action and thriller films plot around the enforcement of laws, which would stop the action and pause the thrills. Even by this standard, Matrix is on a lunatic crime spree, and a loud one. It doesn’t matter that he’s right, that General Kirby exists and that there is a timeframe. It doesn’t matter if they’re wrong. He’s in the cage. They don’t have to listen to him, just like he didn’t have to justify himself to the woman he kidnapped. And the vindication he would have received in the form of an apology, if he even escaped accountability, would be no comfort at all.

Commando for this moment places Matrix in a situation where he lacks control over his fate. His earlier capture involved men who knew who he was, who brought him there for a purpose; his present situation does not. There is the real possibility that this is it; his daughter is certainly dead. And describing the situation with precision won’t help him. He hasn’t drawn the obvious lesson from his own existence.

Arnold’s not much of a reader, and when Cindy frees him with a rocket launcher, he can’t figure out how she did it. He has never had to read a manual. It comes with being powerful. Colonel John Matrix wins because a police van gets flipped over. Or he wins because he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Schwarzenegger gets to do what he wants. These are two ways of saying the same thing, and Commando‘s clear what it thinks about saying anything at all.


How often do you get that lucky? Outside of Arnold, no one has a great time here. There’s a man in this telephone booth when Schwarzenegger flips it over. Throughout, he kills people with the environment around them, dropping or impaling or collapsing buildings. All he needs to do to get what he wants is to look to the natural order of things, which bends to his whims.

When Commando labels itself as “macho bullshit,” it flatters us but masks its own belief. Commando can grant a concession in the form of a description about the world because it doesn’t think the judgment has any value. Commando, which consistently makes fun of the villains for talking tough, revels in the indignities of their comeuppance.

What someone says does matter once in Commando, however, in the final confrontation. Bennett has Matrix’s daughter, a gun, and distance. Arnold agrees Bennett has won. He can’t stop Bennett from killing her, whether through force or through an argument that it would be wrong. So he adjusts his approach.

Bennett, stop screwing around and let the girl go. It’s me that you want. I have only one arm, you can beat me. Come on, Bennett, throw away that chicken-shit gun. You don’t just want to pull a trigger. Put the knife in me, and look me in the eye and see what’s going on in there when you turn it. That’s what you want to do, right?… Come on, let the girl go. It’s between you and me. Don’t deprive yourself of some pleasure. Come on Bennett. Let’s party.

Arnold isn’t civil, this isn’t reasonable, and the prediction is inaccurate. Bennett accepts, and throws away the gun.


Matrix can convince Bennett to do this because he has a story to tell about trials of manhood, to someone he knows will listen. And Bennett does so because Matrix matters to him. The only effective communication in Commando concerns the significance of what’s taking place, and it changes someone’s power over the situation.

It doesn’t end well for Bennett, and when General Kirby finds his prize intact, he pitches a sequel. He knows an effective team means whoever surrounds Matrix, and he has no choice but to reach out—there are fictional South American countries to destabilize. Yet he’s making an argument about logic and consequences, and it fares the same as every other polite request in the film.

Kirby likes Arnold, and wants to keep him, but he doesn’t convince. Unlike the good general, anyone is free to reject Arnold—or to acknowledge him with a wink. There are ways of being right.

Yet if arguments premised on personal attachment will (or should) fail to find traction in discourse, then it is important to remember discourse has only a weak reach beyond its confines. Both “I like it, and I want to keep it” and “it should go away” mistake dismissing something for defeating it. Arnold isn’t going to change; he taunts the man he’s reached out to after ending him. He doesn’t care.

What reductive interpretations lose is the opportunity to make arguments in the terrain where language can most make a difference. For if power authors events, discourse assigns them meaning. Cultural criticism at its best honors this responsibility. Someone finds something more in what most of us might find it easier to write off entirely. In the right hands, Zero Dark Thirty can do better than its detractors at making the case against what it depicts. Nicki Minaj can put her body front and center in a video to show “her power, not as a sexual object but a sexual subject.” Mad Men can demonstrate what it means to box lefty. Terminator 2 can remind us that “being a man isn’t about expensive toys or mistreating women, it’s about the ability to be a stable, invested presence in someone else’s life.”

Even art that has “an allergic reaction to even pretending to understand what it takes to be a cop” can speak on events that require precisely that knowledge, if one reports with a careful ear. This effort is far more wrenching when one leaves culture behind entirely, yet the methodology is the same. Arguments about meaning give us a mode, a way of being, an attitude to shaping the world with tools and history we might otherwise have discarded. And when a religious minority writes about what Orson Scott Card gave him growing up and what he refuses to let him now ruin, when a woman writes about the first video game to treat her like a human being, we can see the reassertion of control. And a vision primed for reclaiming can even elevate clearer victories.

Arnold emerges from the woods in the iconography of a movement premised upon applying aesthetics to politics; their results are why no one should argue for translating the lessons of art to life. Powerful and beautiful things alike struggle to supply meaning on their own. This is their weakness.

Though they can transcend it, we need not let them. Commando ends when the man who always promises to return decides he’s had enough. Power has done what it will. And it has taught us. It always does. It’s ours, too, once it acts, because we have an equal right to decide what it meant, anywhere we find it.

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’.

The only person who learns anything in Commando studies a weapon.