Some of the Founders and Framers of the Constitution did more than turn over in their graves… they actually resurfaced to sing “The Day Democracy Died.” That, plus they “dig those rhythm and blues!
Some of the Founders and Framers of the Constitution did more than turn over in their graves… they actually resurfaced to sing “The Day Democracy Died.” That, plus they “dig those rhythm and blues!
“Better Call Saul” begins its fifth season, per established practice, with a black-and-white, vérité-style peek into the grim future of the shady lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Fearing that his cover as an anonymous fast-food manager has been blown, he’s descending into paranoia, camped in his dark apartment, peeking through the blinds.
These season-opening scenes serve as a kind of narrative relief valve, alleviating some of the sense of determinism inherent in a show that’s a prequel to a series, “Breaking Bad,” whose events and characters tended to have big, bold outlines. This time around, though, the flash forward offers an unexpected bit of fan service: an appearance by the vacuum cleaner repairman Ed Galbraith, played, as he was in “Breaking Bad” and the film “El Camino,” by the great character actor Robert Forster, who died in October.
Forster’s brief, characteristically businesslike turn in “Better Call Saul” is like a blessing, and it reinforces a tone: laconic, no-nonsense, amused by life’s absurdities but rarely taken by surprise. As with so many of Forster’s roles, you suspect he is there to show you how the creators (in this case Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould) would like to see themselves and their story.
So in Season 5, which begins Sunday on AMC, the best thing about “Better Call Saul” is still its minimalism, its quiet spaces, its willingness to linger on details, like a frazzled prosecutor’s struggle to get a bag of chips out of a courthouse vending machine.
Jimmy’s assumption of the even smarmier, less scrupulous persona of Saul Goodman, begun at the end of Season 4, is quickly completed, over the protests of his girlfriend and fellow lawyer, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). And Jimmy’s story arc, focused through four seasons on his problematic law career and his relationships with Kim and his overbearing older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), finally definitively crosses over with that of the drug-dealing rivals Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton).
A hiccup in the Salamanca supply line, detailed in the style of studiously deadpan comedy at which the show excels, brings Jimmy in, and as the cartel lieutenant Nacho (Michael Mando) tells him, “When you’re in, you’re in.” Once there, he encounters a pair of DEA agents, Hank and Steven (Dean Norris and Steven Michael Quezada). And voilà, the outlines of “Breaking Bad” start to come into focus.
All of this is presented with the show’s usual high degree of technical and dramatic accomplishment, and its alternately peppery and dreamlike evocations of the Southwestern landscape, urban and desert. There may be a downside, though, if a slight one, to the approach of the show’s inevitable conclusion and a perceived need to lock in on its themes. In the new season it pauses occasionally to spell out Jimmy’s reasons for becoming Saul (as Jimmy, he’d always be Chuck’s loser brother), as if the flow of the story itself isn’t enough to persuade us, which might be true.
Both of those sequences are handled faultlessly, but they’re also a little more on the nose than we’re used to from “Better Call Saul” — they push us just a little harder than we need to be pushed toward appreciating Jimmy’s corruption and Kim’s ambivalence. (The same could be said of a repeated motif in which episodes end with scenes of broken, castoff objects — a garden gnome, an ice cream cone, bottles of beer.)
To repeat a contrarian view that I’ve advanced before, my attention is more likely to flag during the Jimmy-Kim American-dream scenes than it is during the scenes from the drug plot, which may be more formulaic but are imbued with humor, tension and their own nuances of feeling. (For the other side of the argument, read my colleague James Poniewozik here.)_
Part of this has to do with the presence, on that side of the show, of engaging performers like Esposito, Jonathan Banks as the steadfast enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut (having his own moral crisis now, after the killing of the gentle German engineer, Werner) and especially Dalton as the charismatic Lalo, a wonderful creation whose menace is ever-present and hardly visible. The more we see of them, as the story lines converge, the better for “Better Call Saul.”
Welcome home, Saul-a-holics. It’s been a long time since we gathered here to unpack the rising and falling fortunes of our favorite con man turned corporate lawyer turned mobile phone dealer turned plaintiffs’ attorney. But judging from this first episode, the wait has been worth it.
Let’s just say it: That was the best season opener to date.
We commence, as ever, in the future and in black and white. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is a Cinnabon manager in Omaha named Gene Takovic. As miserable as his new life and identity appear, Mr. Takovic wants to keep it, despite the somewhat terrifying sense that a menacing cabby named Jeff has discovered Jimmy’s previous iteration as Albuquerque’s own Saul Goodman. It’s the same Jeff, played by Don Harvey, who gave Mr. Takovic a lift in last season’s opener, and this time it’s clear that the guy isn’t just trying to drum up fares.
Either Jeff is looking for a bounty or to shake down Saul — probably the latter. We leave this predicament after Saul calls the Disappearer, played with his understated gravity by the great Robert Forster, who has since passed away. Initially, Jimmy/Saul/Gene wants to buy yet another identity, his fourth. Then he decides to save his squirreled-away diamonds and “fix it” himself.
Here’s hoping we don’t need to wait an entire season to learn what happens next. Though that seems likely.
Better Call Saulis back for its fifth season. A review of the premiere, “Magic Man,” coming up just as soon as I hear good things about the new vending machine over by family court…
“See, this is why this works. I go too far, and you pull me back.” -Jimmy
One man, three names. Or is it three different men rightly using three different names?
Going back to when we first met Saul on Breaking Bad, Bob Odenkirk has played the character under multiple aliases. (And that’s not even counting “Viktor with a K,” Jimmy’s moniker whenever he and Kim/Giselle run a short con together.) This prequel seriesbegan with poor Gene trudging through his lonely, paranoid days at Cinnabon, then introduced us to Jimmy McGill, who turned out to be something more complicated than a pre-combover Saul Goodman. Though he eventually began using Saul Goodman as a work name while producing commercials and selling drop phones, he was still clearly the Jimmy we had come to know and love. It wasn’t until midway through last season that we briefly saw the true Saul Goodman, frantically preparing to exit his Albuquerque life near the end of the events of Breaking Bad.
So what separates these three, exactly? How much does it matter? And when will Jimmy McGill fully become Saul Goodman in this series’ present?
Gene is easy to carve off from the other two. He values survival above all else, and has divested himself of anything that might get him identified as Saul or Jimmy, even though those character traits were what once made his life worth living. We only glimpse him for a few minutes at the start of each season, but we can see how painfully empty his time in Omaha has become, and how simultaneously thrilled and terrified he feels whenever he lets one of his old identities slip out for a moment.
Saul, we know relatively well from his time on Breaking Bad. As Odenkirk has pointed out, we only saw the guy when he was involved in Walt and Jesse’s business, meaning it’s entirely possible that he went home to the wonderful Kim Wexler every night. But it doesn’t really seem that way, does it? The Saul Goodman we meet in Breaking Bad Season Two is a blithely ruthless individual, willing to sell out anyone and everyone who threatens him, and baffled that his most important clients aren’t prepared to do the same. He’s not a monster to the degree that Walt or Tuco or Gus are, but he is someone who fundamentally cares about getting and keeping what he feels entitled to above anything else. He is a fairly two-dimensional (if very entertaining) character, and those dimensions are extremely selfish ones.
Jimmy, though? Jimmy contains multitudes. He is a survivalist like Gene, and has done some terrible things in the name of self-preservation (and, occasionally, in the name of protecting people he cares about like Kim). And he is a con man at heart like Saul, often finding his greatest pleasure in getting over on his social superiors. But he’s also more empathetic and fundamentally kinder. He took genuine pleasure in talking with his eldercare law clients. He was a devoted caretaker to Chuck, despite how obviously his brother disapproved of him. His instincts still trend towards chicanery and other shortcuts, but there is a capacity for goodness and shame in him that’s utterly absent from Saul on Breaking Bad.
Throughout the run of Better Call Saul to this point, it’s been pretty easy to keep the three iterations separate. Gene is Gene. Jimmy is Jimmy. Saul is Saul. That’s how the writers refer to them in the scripts; even when Jimmy was calling himself Saul in recent seasons, the scripts still referred to him as Jimmy. The “Ozymandias”-era teaser from “Quite a Ride” was the only time so far the dialogue markers and stage directions used the name Saul.
That story, a hemispheric one, begins in Mexico in the 1920s. After 10 years of civil war and revolution, that country’s new constitutional government turned to art to invent and broadcast a unifying national self-image, one that emphasized both its deep roots in indigenous, pre-Hispanic culture and the heroisms of its recent revolutionary struggles.
The chosen medium for the message was mural painting — monumental, accessible, anti-elitist, in the public domain. And three very differently gifted practitioners quickly came to dominate the field: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros: “Los Tres Grandes” — “the three great ones” — as they came to be known among admirers.
Many of those admirers were artists in the United States. Some had heard word of a lush, affordable, artist-honoring tropical utopia, and traveled south to experience it for themselves. Others, alert to social inequities rampant under United States capitalism — to be laid bare by the Great Depression — wanted to make art a tool for social change and took the Mexican revolutionary experiment as a model.
For all parties, the model was an exhilarating one, and the bright pink walls of the exhibition’s opening gallery suggest a fiesta atmosphere, as do the paintings gathered there: Alfredo Ramos Martínez’s 1929 image of an itinerant flower vendor bending under her load of calla lilies; a 1928 painting by Rivera of Oaxacan dancers in orchidaceous gowns; and, from the same year, a scene, in Rivera’s volumetric, smooth-brushed, Paris-trained style, of women harvesting cactus by the American artist Everett Gee Jackson.
Jackson (1900-1995), who was born in Texas and trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, made an art jaunt to Mexico in 1923 and stayed four years. He saw Rivera’s mural work in Mexico City and created his own variation on what had already become a local “national” style. There he also met Anita Brenner, a Mexican writer of Latvian Jewish descent, who was the fulcrum of a lively international community, and whose widely read 1929 book “Idols Behind Altars” — there’s a copy on display — introduced North Americans to the history of Mexican culture, from pre-Columbian times forward.
Turn a corner into the next gallery and you find work from around the same time but on overtly polemical themes. It was important for a nation that identified itself with populist struggle to keep the memory of that struggle burning, and art was on the job. You see this in a large charcoal painting study by Rivera of the firebrand revolutionary Emiliano Zapata trampling an enemy underfoot. And in an inky Siqueiros portrait of the same leader, looking as blank-eyed as a corpse. And in a spiky, depressed Orozco painting of the peasant guerrillas known as Zapatistas, their figures as stiff as the machetes they carry, locked in a grim forced march.
By the time these pictures were made in 1931, two of the artists were working primarily in the United States; the third would arrive the next year. There were reasons for this northern influx of émigré talent. With a change of leaders in Mexico, mural commissions had dropped off, and far-left politics — Rivera and Siqueiros self-identified as Communists — had become less welcome. Something like the opposite was true in the United States, where young artists radicalized by the Depression were eager to explore the possibilities of social consciousness-raising public art. To work with these masters was a dream come true.
Orozco came first, to New York in 1927. There he taught easel painting and printmaking to a rapt cohort of local artists before moving on to California to execute a mural commission for Pomona College in Claremont — a 1930 fresco called “Prometheus” that the teenage Jackson Pollock, then living in Los Angeles, saw and never forgot.
MARFA, Texas — When Landrie Moore was looking for a venue for her destination wedding, she knew she wanted a space that really reflected life in this small, remote desert town.
Her guests would be coming from as far as Ecuador and England, and Ms. Moore, 35, who works for a boutique hotel firm, hoped to provide a memorable and authentic experience for those travelers. When you visit a new place, she said in a phone interview, “you want to feel like a local.”
Which is why she decided to get married mere feet from the office of The Big Bend Sentinel, the region’s oldest newspaper (where I worked as a reporter in 2014 and 2015).
Ms. Moore’s wedding, in June, was the first of five held last year in the Sentinel, a cafe and cocktail bar in the newspaper’s newly renovated office building. The space is perhaps the most visible sign that The Big Bend Sentinel is under new ownership: Maisie Crow and Max Kabat, two transplants from New York, took over last year from Robert and Rosario Halpern, the paper’s publishers of 25 years.
“We kind of saw us in a way,” Mr. Halpern said of the couple.
“Buy a newspaper?” Mr. Kabat, 37, recalled thinking when the Halperns first approached him and Ms. Crow about a potential sale. “What are we, idiots?” Their background is in consulting and documentary filmmaking. (The New York Times is a producer of a forthcoming film by Ms. Crow.)
Since 2004, nearly 20 percent of local papers in the United States have folded or merged, according to a 2018 study by the Hussman School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina. In many cases, publishers have been replaced by a narrow network of large investment groups that have acquired hundreds of failing newspapers.
But Marfa is no ordinary town, and its newsweekly has been a pillar of the community for nearly a century — long before Marfa became cool. The Big Bend Sentinel’s pages are pasted up with major issues of the day (the death of Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice, on a nearby luxury ranch, for example, and the possibility of a border wall just 60 miles away) alongside valedictorian announcements, photo spreads of homecoming events and advance coverage of the town’s many festivals.
Before Mr. Kabat and Ms. Crow took over, the paper ran solely on an ad sales and subscriptions. “It was able to sustain itself on a shoestring, but we wanted to expand the potential,” Ms. Crow, 38, said. They hoped to bring locals closer, physically, to the institution covering their hometown.
So they bought the building previously occupied by Padre’s, a dive bar that went out of business in 2016, and before that, a funeral home, and began renovations.
“We had to sage the whole place,” said Callie Jenschke, whom the couple hired to handle interior design.
She recognized that there was a familiar Marfa aesthetic that tourists had come to want and expect — “a nomadic austerity mixed with the warmth of the desert,” in her words — and married that with Scandinavian influences, including concrete floors and Hans Wegner chairs, while preserving the original adobe brick and plaster walled facade.
All the furniture had to be movable and multifunctional, Ms. Jenschke said, “because they didn’t really know how it was going to be used.” It could be a co-working space, Mr. Kabat and Ms. Crow thought initially, then decided a subscription model would go against their goal of inclusivity.
Instead, they landed on a cafe/bar where locals could work and tourists could recharge. They would rent the kitchen space to local cooks to serve food throughout the day. And though they wouldn’t make money off the food itself, they could turn a profit on drinks. Eventually, there would be requests to rent the space for private events.
On a visit in the fall, the morning crowd lined up for coffee, served in hand-thrown clay mugs and with the option of organic oat milk. By early afternoon, the bar offered watermelon ranch waters for happy hour. Newspapers were scattered on the surfaces of the space.
Next door, the Big Bend Sentinel’s staff squeezed into a dimly lit room just a fraction of the Sentinel’s size. Now and then, the two full-time reporters dropped into the cafe to refill their mugs.
A relic of the old office remains: a neon sign spelling out “newspaper.” In the evenings, when the light is turned on, the office glows red from within.
Sometimes the reporters work out of the Sentinel, which functions as a kind of public square. “It’s a great way to keep my finger on the pulse and get new leads and find stories,” said Abbie Perrault, 27, the managing editor.
For legal reasons, Ms. Crow and Mr. Kabat have decided to keep the businesses separate on paper. In Texas, any business with a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission license for serving alcohol is subject to warrantless searches by law enforcement, and they didn’t want to take that risk with the newsroom.
Still, the couple sees the Sentinel as a natural extension of the paper. During editorial meetings, the staff discusses greenlighting private events. When a political candidate asked to rent the space to host a meet-and-greet, they declined, concerned it might violate the ethics of the newspaper.
Since Ms. Crow and Mr. Kabat took over, they have expanded the newspaper’s digital platform, which has seen a 7 percent increase in traffic, Mr. Kabat said, and broadened its photographic coverage. At the newspaper’s sister publication, The International, which the couple also owns and which serves the largely Spanish-speaking neighboring border town of Presidio, every article is now translated into Spanish. They added a crossword puzzle and Sudoku to both papers, too.
The newspapers still sell ads, which account for the majority of revenue. But with additional income from private events and day-to-day drink sales, the publishers have been able to keep yearly subscription costs steady: $50 for area residents and $60 for anyone outside.
“If people come in and buy a coffee and buy something from our shop, rent the space, buy a cocktail, whatever it is, their dollar isn’t just going to that,” Ms. Crow said. “Their dollar is going to support something larger.”