“Better Call Saul” humanizes the smooth-talking “Breaking Bad” sidekick in a surprisingly solid spin-off

Vince Gilligan’s new antihero origin story has more in common with “Mad Men” than “Breaking Bad”

“Better Call Saul” humanizes the smooth-talking “Breaking Bad” sidekick in a surprisingly solid spin-off
Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul” (Credit: AMC/Ursula Coyote)

I’m surprised how much I liked “Better Call Saul.” We might as well start there.

“Better Call Saul” isn’t exactly supposed to be good. It’s a spin-off of a beloved television show, “Breaking Bad”; and unlike “Friends” or “Cheers,” which both spawned spinoffs, “Breaking Bad” isn’t a feel-good sitcom with a happy ending. The five seasons of the original AMC show were a slow, brutal transformation story, from Walter White the man to Heisenberg the monster, and if the drug-dealing arc didn’t interest you, the incredible direction and once-in-a-lifetime performances might.

So when AMC announced the production of “Better Call Saul,” I was skeptical—not because I thought something from Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and actor Bob Odenkirk couldn’t be good, but because I worried that the spin-off might tarnish the original. (I wish I could forget the “Star Wars” prequels. I wish I could.) The production decision is undoubtedly an attempt to make more money off of a successful franchise with an established fanbase—a situation that can privilege hacky fan service over quality and creativity. (Think “Joey,” the spinoff from “Friends,” as opposed to “Frasier,” the spinoff from “Cheers.”)

Vince Gilligan and his team, as usual, have surprised me. I haven’t totally fallen for the prequel series “Better Call Saul”—it doesn’t quite feel like its own show yet—but it did make me care about the man who becomes Saul Goodman in a way I never did in “Breaking Bad.” And though the story of Walter White is done and dead, series creators Gilligan and Gould have found a way to tell the story of Saul—currently known as Jimmy McGill, public defender—in a way that echoes and parallels White’s story without necessarily covering the same ground. The general premise is the same: The world makes it hard to be a good man (or a Goodman). But the sordid particulars will always vary.



When we meet Jimmy McGill—six years before the events of “Breaking Bad”—what’s fascinating about him is that he seems to know this already. Not exactly for himself, although his career has already brushed the wrong side of the law. But definitely for others. Jimmy makes ends barely meet by defending criminals in county court, where he is forced to come up with a narrative of explanation and redemption for possibly guilty defendants, multiple times a day. Jimmy’s a talker—that’s what he’s good at. That’s why he’s a lawyer, that’s what he brings to the table. But he’s not just a talker, he’s a storyteller of sorts: a salesman, a charlatan, an ad man. He’s got a plausible explanation for his clients’ many missteps, a ready tale of sympathy for anyone willing to listen—the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the woman validating his parking. And though it sounds glib, it’s not effortless—we see him rehearse in mirrors, practice in his car, work through talking points before knocking on doors. He has to work up the energy to bluster. Maybe because he just wants to build momentum, and maybe because when you’re essentially a legal con man, you have to be careful to get your words right. But there’s a hint of something more tragic, too: Jimmy has to convince himself of the truth of his words so that he can have the most impact. He’s got to believe that his clients are innocent-ish in order to fight for them; he’s got to become the lie, or to become, more specifically, the most convenient version of the truth.

It’s there, in Jimmy McGill’s fast-talking attempt to come out on top, that “Better Call Saul” really shines. Despite being a spin-off of “Breaking Bad,” McGill has more in common with “Mad Men’s” Don Draper—not the womanizing or the mythos, but certainly that same fanatical commitment to selling a version of reality that both men end up half-believing, just to survive.

By the time we meet him in “Breaking Bad,” Bob Odenkirk’s Saul is a static figure—he’s part of the criminal environment that Walt and Jesse break into. His answers and advice are all world-weary and polished. “Better Call Saul” offers the viewer a chance to see how he would become that man. It’s more than a little convoluted—there’s a brother, a situation with a big law firm that is only explained in bits and pieces, a scheme gone wrong and the familiar landscape of the desert-suburbia of Albuquerque, shot with the same golden filters and wide angles. At times, the familiarity is exciting; at other times, it’s jarring. And the rest of the time, it’s vaguely frustrating—we’ve explored this landscape of abandoned strip malls, remote gas stations and cheap flip-phones before. There are a few familiar faces in the first three episodes; at least one made me roll my eyes. But there’s something a little delicious about the continuity, too: Spin-offs are the type of weird pop-culture artifact unique to serialized forms, and television in particular. It’s absurd and intriguing to see a master of the form take it on.

So for right now, I’m willing to go along with “Better Call Saul’s” smooth-talking appeal. Gilligan did masterful work with “Breaking Bad,” telling a story not just about Walter White but also about the culture that shaped and enabled him. Now he’s taking on another type of criminal—a trickster, not a mastermind. Jimmy McGill is very good at what he does, and as the first few episodes with him show, at least several years ago his heart was mostly in the right place. But he started to believe his own ready supply of lies, and that was the beginning of the end. You can’t talk your way out of the truth forever.

“Better Call Saul” premieres on AMC at 10 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8. The second episode will air at 10 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 9. The series will air on Mondays.

From #Takethesquare to São Paulo’s #FreeYourPark

By Bernardo Gutiérrez On January 29, 2015

Post image for From #Takethesquare to São Paulo’s #FreeYourParkAfter the square occupations of the past years, the Augusta Park actions in São Paulo, Brazil, open a new phase based on a vision of the commons.

There was a time when the occupied square was the city. The initial camp of Spanish 15M Indignados in Puerta del Sol in Madrid became a city per se. In this square-city a kindergarten, libraries, clinics, and cultural spaces emerged.

There was a time when the occupied square was a country. In Tahrir Square talks of dissatisfaction of the mosques of Egypt and Facebook groups like We Are Khaled Said converged, lighting the flame of the revolt. During the occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul a map of the Republic of Gezi was even designed. The space occupied by different ethnic, religious or ideological groups appeared in different colors: anarchists, communists, socialists, nationalists, LGBT, environmentalists, Muslims, and football fans. Groups losing their walls of prejudice, talking to each other for the first time.

There was a time when the occupied square was the world. In fact, all occupations were or wanted to be the world. The mind map of Acampada Sol of Madrid drew a planetary dialogue in which groups such as the Zapatistas and Anonymous and events such as Argentina 2001 default and Tiananmen Square fitted together. The Zuccotti Park in New York, taken for weeks by Occupy Wall Street, became a global connection interface. We are the 99% of the square-world, they said.

But many squares forgot to be squares. The occupation created a second skin of commons-oriented practices and self-management. But the petitions of the occupations had more to do with macro-political, social or economic issues. The exception could be the Turkish #DirenGezi explosion, born as resistance against the construction of a mall in Gezi Park. After the outbreak of the riots, the cause of Gezi Park was diluted in an ocean of ailments and requests. The slogan “It is not for a park” opened a multi-faceted revolt. But beyond the conservation of Gezi Park there was no specific demand for self-management. Defending the park as a public good seemed to be the horizon.

Neither public nor private

The occupation of Augusta Park in the Brazilian city of São Paulo, without being as explosive as the Turkish Gezi Park, opens a new breakthrough in the global cycle of occupations: the proposal of a commons-oriented park. The Augusta Park — being city, country and world — wants to be a park. But it wants to be a common, communitarian or collective park, not just a public park.

Many of the contradictions of the global occupations float over the 25,000 square meters of Augusta Park. As Zuccotti Park in New York, the Augusta Park is a private property. Two companies are the owners of the park: Syrela and Setin. Syrela is also responsible for the construction of the golf course in the Olympic area of Rio de Janeiro, where the #OcupaGolfe (#OccupyGolf) movement has emerged. And here comes the dystopian metaphor: a public sector serving the private sector interests. The market sets the pace.

The municipality of São Paulo, after a lot of public pressure, sanctioned the creation of Augusta Park in late 2013. The forest, the last redoubt of Atlantic Forest in São Paulo, has been declared a historical, environmental and cultural heritage. But the city hall council argues that it has no resources to expropriate the park. The owners of the park wanted €21.8 million in September 2013. Now, based on rising housing prices, they want €85.5 million for the park.

The Park Augusta Movement, after months of actions, festivals and small raids into the park, decided to ‘liberate the park.’ They broke the locks. They entered. They camped. The movement argues that they are not occupying: “We are releasing a space that should be open by law,” says Daniel Biral, member of the Advogados Ativistas collective. The freedom of movement of citizens in the Augusta Park is legally guaranteed. But since December 2013, the park is closed. That is why the park was occupied/opened on Saturday 17 January.

The assemblies within the park take place at a dizzying pace. There are yoga classes, shows, an open school, workshops, meetings, and so on. The creative frenzy includes the presence of many of the groups and social actors of the massive June 2013 protests. The occupation of Augusta Park aims to break the logic of the market. One paragraph of the objectives of the Park Augusta Movement stresses that point: “A public park is a common good, belongs to the social network of the city and cannot remain under private and speculative interests. Its social function must be guaranteed.”

The park wants to be a park. The park wants to be a common park.

The process-park

“We do not have a definite plan for the park.” The sentence floated on a screen in one of the initial assemblies after the occupation. Breno Castro, one of the participants, was explaining, one by one, the principles of the movement. First: horizontality. Next: pluralism, public space, permaculture, direct democracy, respect and generosity. Finally, Breno explained the process-park concept, a point which also summarizes the insights of global occupations. It is also linked to the so-called ‘perpetual beta’ state, common in the hacker world: an unfinished shape that collective intelligence can constantly improve. The Process-Park, according to its own site: “Why defining a design that will last for years? The Augusta Park will be multiple and be renewed periodically. We will leave mobile and empty areas, which will enable rebuilding processes.”

The Augusta Park park is city, country and world. It is a park-city: inside there are reading places, recycling areas, tents for political debates. It is also a park-city because it is connected to a network of twelve threatened parks in São Paulo, all of them in a process of resistance. It is a park-country: it has close contact with other urban environmental struggles, such as Fica Ficus (Belo Horizonte), Ocupe Estelita (Recife), the Gong Park (Curitiba), Coco Park (Fortaleza) and #OcupaGolfe (Rio de Janeiro). It is also a park-world: in 2014 they were visited by activists who participated in the occupation of Turkish Gezi Park. Both movements released together the manifesto #Reclaiming our parks. And it is an icon that gains support in several countries, as reflected in a recent BBC article.

But maybe the Augusta Park is something else. Something else than park, city, country and/or world. Paulinho Fluxus, one of the participants in the occupation, sitting on the grass of Augusta Park, remembered his visit to the Santuario dos Pajés, an indigenous land threatened by the housing boom of Brasilia. The sanctuary, for urbanite Paulinho, is the city’s cosmic connection with nature. With the planet. The Augusta Park represents that connection too. It is an urban struggle, but connected to the environmental imaginary of the world.

It is connected to the ancient world-views of the so-called Global South. It is a resistance connected to some commons-ruled natural forests in Europe (as in Galicia, Spain). The Augusta Park is technopolitics, networks and territories. But it is also cosmopolitics. This kind of cosmopolitics, linked to the practices of indigenous people around the commons, is a counterweight to the storytelling of the Western world. The individual Cartesianism succumbs in the collective Amerindian vision. “The other exists, therefore he thinks”, according to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, an influential Brazilian anthropologist.

With a serious hydraulic crisis in Brazil, Paulinho Fluxus’ speech makes even more sense. There is a lack of water in the main Brazilian cities. Many people think that a water revolt is inevitable. Within weeks. Naomi Klein, in her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate puts climate change at the center of politics. There will be riots, she states. Many. Different ones. Against the lack of water. Against the scarcity of green in the cities.

On September 20, People’s Climate Mobilization held protests in 156 countries. “Whether or not climate change is the main reason, (such local movements) deserve to be recognized as the anonymous ‘carbon keepers’, which means that protecting their beloved forests, mountains, rivers and coasts are helping to protect all of us”, writes Klein. It is the water, stupid. It is water. It is the climate. It is the park that resists against capital. OccupyDesign and 99% cross creativity and plan actions to impact the UN Climate Conference COP21, to be held in Paris in late 2015. It will be a classic scene of battles. An old struggle. But now there is the landscape of environmental urgency, indignations are rising, and the global network system is more connected than ever.

Near the entrance of Augusta Park in São Paulo, a painting on a poster ignores the fact that military police already has the legal order for eviction. The Augusta Park can be evicted any day. The painting talks with passersby with a shout that opens doors. A shout that connects the city with other visions. A shout that is an evolution of that of Take the Square of 2011. Black letters, white background. An arrow encouraging new horizons: Free your park.

Bernardo Gutiérrez (@bernardosampa) is a Spanish-Brazilian journalist and writer who researches networked movements, hacker culture and peer-to-peer politics. He is the founder of the network FuturaMedia.net, lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and participates in the Global Revolution Research Network (GRRN).

Image by Acacio Augusto via Twitter: @acacio1871

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/01/sao-paolo-augusto-park-occupation/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29