Dialogue: Mario McKellop on Better Call Saul

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

A Trip through the Armory

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Dinner Table

Friends with Kids (2012)

We’d put an awful lot of money into the season opener. So I was asked to write a show with no locations, no guest cast, no new sets and minimal extras. So I wrote a play.

– Aaron Sorkin on “17 People

Party hosts know well how adding more people to the mix can breed complications. Fiction works no differently, and Orson Scott Card explains in his introduction to Speaker for the Dead how two characters have one relationship between them, three characters have three, four have six, five have ten, et cetera. Keeping this straight beyond a certain point takes a steady focus.

The number of characters involved will have a necessary relation to how a creator structures a story. It’s easy to notice this in how we refer to filmed entertainment with a small set of characters as more “theatrical,” or in the association of genre fantasy and science fiction with a wider cast. World-building as an end in itself involves introducing more information, often in the form of more people. Fiction which puts a premium on level of detail can achieve this scale by bringing long lists of characters along for the ride.

The timeframe for a story also has a clear impact upon the structure of a story. The first tier of American epics—films like Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Raging Bull—have no stronger unifying thread then the wideness of their gaze. Years and decades pass by within two, maybe three hours, making for a decisively different tenor than a more compact dramatic scope.

The limits on the length of a film constrain the medium’s ability to stage the passage of time, and this has an inevitable effect upon the way in which these stories feel. Unlike a novel, a comic strip, or even a miniseries, there’s no way to fill in the sweep of a wide expanse of time with anything approaching thorough detail. So in precisely the opposite way from a one-day film, where the mundane, through its accumulation, becomes profound, nearly everything we see in these films feels significanta milestone along an important path.

These two axes—the number of characters, and the temporal scope of the story—so deeply fix the contours of a story as to be almost inseparable from the story a work chooses to tell. No matter the process and the sequence in which the creative hands fix these elements, they set down the shape of what the viewer will experience. You may be able to know more about a film in advance from knowing the number of major characters and the length of its story than from where it takes place and what it will be about.

I’m not familiar enough with romantic comedies as a genre to know whether Friends with Kids makes a decisive break from its governing conceptions. People who know better seem to say no. I can’t help but suspect, however, that its eight major characters and its six-year timeframe aren’t the normal approach. Few romantic comedies seem willing to push forward on both fronts. The all-hands-on-deck entries tend to organize themselves around a specific time of the year or event, as in Valentine’s Day or Love Actually. The stories of love over a lifetime narrow the cast lists appropriately. And the run-of-the-mill romantic comedy typically has a contained cast and a few months of events. Thus, even if Friends with Kids is simply expanding the scope and scale of the same old undertaking, it’s a modification with a significant impact upon the experience of the film, and a fascinating demonstration of what axes of time and breadth mean for a narrative.

There’s an energetic air to this film which is difficult to find these days, and the spring in the step has everything to do with its ambitions and with the ways in chooses to address them. The time-scale, the number of characters and the level of attention the film wants to provide to what’s happening on a macro level necessitate something very basic: short scenes. There’s simply no way to travel through an eight-character film and a complicated romantic arc within two hours without industrious efficiency, and the film takes every effort to elide details it deems unimportant and to exit scenes early on a punchline. Scenes are there for illustrative detail with an eye toward narrative economy.

The film makes the most of what it’s doing, too, and it’s compelling to take in the fortunes of the character’s lives. The changes within the group as people fall apart and grow close together feels remarkably true to the real-life experience of how sets of friends and partners interact over time. And even if its actual narrative makes no moves outside of what’s expected for the genre company it keeps, these moves feel far different when taking place amid a wider and more filled-in backdrop.

Whether or not its depiction of real adult relationships feels true to life, which will affect whether you can take from the film anything of significance beyond the novelty of its storytelling form, the film also features one terrific scene. The eight characters are together in a room only once, for a dinner at a cabin retreat. The meal feels like a riff on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” with alcohol gradually turning ruminative monologues into directed assaults. There’s a playful deployment of as many interactive pairs as possible among the damn near thirty relationships around the table, and Chris O’Dowd, Adam Scott, and Jon Hamm get a chance to run wild with Jennifer Westfeltdt’s script. It all coheres into an arresting, riveting scene, one simply not possible without the accrued character history and expanded cast afforded by the film’s approach.

The film can only bring about this scene because of the expanse of the story it tells, and that’s meaningful. Friends with Kids may be no greater in the scale of its ambitions than its cohorts in the modern romantic comedy, but its scale is ambitious, and to tell its story well is no small achievement.

A year from now when I think about the movie, what I’m most likely to remember is that scene. Works great and minor compress themselves into easier reference points. There’s something curious about this, and the way that scenes introduce themselves to first-time audiences, relative to the way they live on in the memories of fans. There’s almost no way to know heading into a unit of fictional storytelling that what you’re about to encounter is or is not “iconic,” is or is not a setpiece, is or is not a part of the story worth talking about after. It’s antithetical to art (though unavoidable) to decide that such-and-such scene is the work, midway through, but it’s an almost-inevitable shorthand.

There’s an aspect to this which doesn’t do violence to a work, though, for scenes in films bear the unmistakable mark of their surroundings. They carry with them a great deal of embedded information. In films, with their limited run times, long scenes must justify their existence. Film’s intrinsic compression makes the obligations of a scene to the wider aims of the story of paramount importance. And their nature, the significance we take from them, bears the indelible shape of the narrative structure. The constraints or the freedom of the scale and scope are there for all to see.

Films, unlike less constrained mediums, have only so much time to achieve what they’ve set out to do. It’s no accident that the cabin dinner in Friends with Kids is the longest scene in a film marked mostly by short episodes, as depicting the level of detail the film wishes to go into about the characters’ lives would not be possible if every scene were five minutes long.

One consequence of the sweep of the American epics I mentioned earlier, or any work with aspirations toward playing a broader canvass, is the inevitable need to achieve something different with each scene. The demands of providing information and exposition are greater, and a scene can’t simply tell a pleasing short story. What the viewer sees must not only have an immediate narrative stakes, it must also evoke and suggest a larger transition. It must stand for what’s occurring outside the frame, or at least catch you up on what else has occurred. Each unit of the drama must focus on illustration, sometimes to the detriment of immediate emotional impact. While this may not be the case for a pivotal or climactic event, where the import is up close and evident, key transitions by their nature are rarer by their nature than the events that clear the way for them.

The greater the temporal scope, the greater the tendency toward the inclusion of more scenes in the same amount of running time, and the same appears to be true for characters. Where there are more people in the mix, there is more of a need to stage their individual stories. The average scene length for a sequel will go down as the need to balance familiar faces with new introductions takes hold, and keeping tabs on an entire house party will need more nimble steps than staging a dinner between friends.

These proportional relationships are at work in television, as well, though more often due to financial constraints. The smallest ensemble and most focused vision on television, Breaking Bad, has a marked tendency toward lengthy, prolonged scenes. And perhaps the most thoroughly built-up and filled in world, on The Wire, made for a series where anything past two minutes counted as noteworthy.

There are, of course, ways to counter these inclinations, which don’t have the status of iron laws. A work could make its longer scenes always include more characters, and accomplish the work of bringing forward many individual stories in one go. Editing can allow for cross-cutting between one long scene and smaller illustrative episodes in a way that preserves the ability to tell a short story with some heft yet keeps the narrative moving. Yet where both aspects are in place, many characters and a longer view, the force pushing toward a greater number of scenes is strong, and the length of any given scene will trend downward.

The scale and scope of a work has a relation to its narrative, then, not only in the larger sense of story structure but in setting a baseline rhythm. The tenor and the default purpose of a scene changes, what a scene has room to do and what it must achieve in that time.

The idea of constraints on the basic unit of a work of storytelling is not unique to film, and in many ways it’s far less circumscribed in its possibilities than other mediums. No method of storytelling has a more exact restriction on its basic tempo than the comic strip, for instance—a certain width, a certain height, forever and for always, with no one strip failing to land a punchline. It’s no accident that Calvin & Hobbes trades have a tangible exuberance on the Sunday pages, the one time in the week where Bill Watterson could trade off the restrictive tempo of the six-weekly one-and-done. Television, too, as rich and varied as its forms have become, remains dependent on creating episodes with their own smaller stories and subdivisions for commercial breaks, HBO aside.

Film is free from the medium-dictated necessity of doing things in a certain way, and short of franchise-starters they’re not in the service of long-term narrative obligations. They can slide into a separate register of scene length far more readily, and more unexpectedly, even if the structure will limit how often it can let loose.

As a consequence, you don’t quite know heading into a given situation whether something will last for a short time or a long time, and an hour or so of a film isn’t often enough to establish any kind of rigorous rule to how the work will choose to depict events. We can encounter something truly unexpected. If poetry remains film’s closest kin, then cinema nonetheless speaks unconstrained by meter.

The potential for an air of unpredictability, however, depends in part on what kind of story a film is telling. The way extended scenes feel in a story of heightened temporal scope and with more lives depicted, as in the epics above, is noticeably different. Their function intertwines more tightly with the needs of the wider of the wider narrative. They must exist as illustrations, photographs of a longer life, something meant to evoke an inflection point and give the sense of a wider transition.

That these scenes serve a more explicitly narrative-driven purpose, rather than the possibility for something genuinely tangential or revelatory, often contributes to the ability to recognize certain scenes, before they fully come to fruition, as something demanding the utmost attention. We can sense, often because we are more or less told, that something important is upon us. Boogie Nights makes for a magnificent example, unsurprisingly given P.T. Anderson’s clear understanding of the tradition of the American epic and the film’s unabashed aspirations to become their peer. Prefacing a scene with a “Long Way Down (One Last Thing)” title card—an uncannily appealing phrase which works well in the strangest places—the drug deal cues you into its status as something to watch even before Alfred Molina appears in all his scenery-chewing glory.

That’s not to sell the scene short as a standalone narrative in its own right, a short story with razor-edge tension and a magnificent use of music. It’s no small feat to make some idiots sitting on a couch watching a lunatic expound on pop music carry such visceral intensity. If only by explicitly making clear that the scene is an inflection point, the expositional and illustrative purpose of the scene within a longer epic is out of the way, and PTA is free to let loose with a compressed mini-narrative. We know this is an ending, imbued with significance, and he pitches the storytelling to the meet the import of the moment.

The chops of a filmmaker like PTA, however, can distract from how his scene-by-scene talents acquire a radically different feeling depending on the context of the narrative; and his mature work bears out the importance of the two basic axes of scope and scale with surprising clarity. It also helps to make sense of how out-of-nowhere There Will Be Blood appeared when it first came on the scene, for from the right perspective it’s simply a novel assortment of constituent arrangements PTA had already mastered. Combine the uncomfortable character focus of Punch-Drunk Love and the temporal sweep of Boogie Nights, and you’re got a head-start on the skewed weirdness of Daniel Plainview’s life on the screen. Maybe the most unrecognized stylistic difference between Boogie NIghts and Magnolia, two ensemble films often treated as a pair, emerges from the latter’s lack of temporal diffusion.

PTA’s four major films neatly represent the four available configurations of few/many characters and short/long timeframe, in the order of many/long, many/short, few/short, and few/long, a lockstep progression between fundamental narrative confines. Simply focusing on these two axes provides as much a guide to the differing feels of the various films as their differences in style, subject and presentation. And it clues the viewer in to how the feel of the scenes changes along the way, how the hand of a master can bring to bear the same capacities to any given staging and yet use the overall context to create differences.

The scope of the characters under examination and the scale of the time depicted appear to be deep in the bones of narratives, perhaps the defining way to sort between them. How the film is set up can affect how we take even a straightforward scene, shorn of the immediate visceral and sensory impact of something from a younger director. Eyes Wide Shut, has precisely one scene where there’s a direct confrontation between the malevolent forces behind the drama and the perpetually baffled protagonist. With the typical Kubrick flattening, it plays out in a subdued key. Yet because of the compression of its narrative, the conversation between Bill and Ziegler has a far more bracing and fear-inducing force than if it were embedded within a wider scope, or if there were far more characters whom we knew. Among a small cast, Ziegler’s knowledge becomes a near-mathematical certainty, and what he will reveal to Bill is a foregone conclusion. Yet knowing something will happen, and knowing, almost from the outset, that it must happen, only heightens the fascination with the manner in which it unfolds. Where we know in Boogie Nights what would happen on the level of narrative structure, we know in Eyes Wide Shut what plot detail is on its way; and knowing one but not the other is more than enough to keep our interest. What form our interest will take depends on factors beyond what actually unfolds in the scene.

It’s an open question which of these configurations most closely conforms to our lived experiences. The formative moments of people’s real lives can have different shapes. An unexpected death or an endlessly planned wedding are both a part of life, no more or less true than the other. We can’t know what’s in store for us some of the time, while other times we know all too well; we can anticipate turns in the road but not the view beyond the bend.

The only constant is that something will happen, and then something else will happen, and perhaps this gives us a need for this variety of arrangements. We can recognize the weight of anticipation and the weightlessness of excitement in our own lives, at different moments. And for this reason, whether we take in the story of a few people or many, depicting a day or a lifetime, there will be no mistaking the signature of what occurs.

Pixar

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. …

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Pixar is a special company. That much we can all agree on, as audiences have over the last two decades, turning out to see their pictures in great numbers, netting their films over six billion dollars in revenue. Since the “Best Animated Feature” award was established, every film they’ve made eligible for a nomination has received one. Of their eleven films to this point, eight to ten qualify as masterpieces, competitive with the number of enduring films made in the first thirty years of Walt Disney Studios. They’ve transcended the marginalization of animation: since Toy Story‘s 1995 release, no single creative force has been responsible for more minutes of quality American cinema.

We know all this already, or sense it, which is to say that Pixar is a settled fact of the entertainment landscape. They are so consistent that they’ve surpassed the ability to doubt them. Since Finding Nemo, at the latest, the presumption is that once every year or two Pixar will deliver a beautifully executed, heartfelt, perfectly crafted movie that will appeal to children and adults alike. In every case, they’ve met that expectation, and in their past three pictures, the critical reverence for their work has approached incredible heights. It’s not misplaced, either; Pixar is the rare case of a popular and critical consensus that is, with some small shadings and misperceptions here or there, unimpeachable. The phenomenon of popular rage at reviews that robbed their last three classics of 100% Rotten Tomatoes scores is absurd, on the one hand, but it makes a certain sense: we should manage to be in unison in the face of such great work.

Most impressively, Pixar have delivered the goods working in the popular mainstream; one could argue that greats like Chomet or Miyazaki have delivered animated pictures of greater accomplishment during this time, but however lovely their creations, they have a niche audience. Largely thanks to Pixar, however, computer animation is participating in the conversation, able to provide a vigorous counterpoint to live-action tentpole blockbusters, offering the assurance that from time to time you can enjoy big-budget entertainment without silencing your better instincts.

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