Monday, August 13, 2018

Creatures of Light and Darkness


For those of you that are New Wave SF nerds like me, you'll recognize the title of one of Roger Zelazny's more esoteric novels. Originally envisioned as simply a writing exercise, Zelazny never intended to publish Creatures of Light and Darkness. But once friend and fellow author, Samuel Delany, heard about it, he encouraged an editor to take the manuscript from Zelazny and put it into print, for good or ill. It has one chapter devoted entirely to poetry and the end is written like a screenplay. In other words, it's a very stylized approach to telling another of Zelazny's stories about futuristic beings of myth and their very human motivations. Similarly, Michelle MacLaren, director of the latest episode of Better Call Saul, used a backlighting technique throughout to indicate moments of tension, where the conflict between characters was subtle but significant to the story; where decisions kept the direction of the story for those characters balanced on that edge between light and darkness that scientists call 'the terminator' as sunlight creeps across the spinning ball of our planet. Would their decisions move them wholly into the light or the darkness or would continue to inhabit the halfway point, not quite sure how or if to proceed?

The first example was Jimmy and Kim, as the former putters around the kitchen, determined to flee from having to talk with Kim about recent events, and to reassure himself that he can still be of value, even without the law license that his now dead brother wrested from him; the only real thing of value that Jimmy has ever acquired in his life. Jimmy's face is shrouded like his soul is and looking away from the light just shows how unwilling he is to face his role in what happened. The next example was Ignacio, who faced his father in darkness, trying to reassure him that the threat from the Salamancas to launder money through his car business was finished, although his father cannot look at his shrouded son. Nevertheless, still fearing for the safety of the son who so wounded him by involving himself with criminals, pays the tax, anyway. Ignacio tries to convince him not to and then surrenders to what he knows he cannot change. The next example was the meeting between Mike and Lydia, as the latter cringes from Mike's bold play at the warehouse, thinking that continuing as normal is better than laying the defense against his inevitable discovery by someone. Mike knows better, but still has to convince the person who effectively outranks him. Here is the former cop, still walking in the twilight with his new partner who covers the drug business contained within the parent corporation; meeting in a darkened conference room, as if someone might discover them with the lights turned on.


The technique is still in evidence when Kim accosts Howard over the backhanded estate settlement that she knows will only further demoralize Jimmy. Their conflict is much more prominent and not subtle, so the contrast is fainter, as Kim's fury lights up the scene. But there's still the faint shadow that symbolizes the undercurrent of Howard wanting to get a last jab in at Jimmy, whom he knows tortured his friend and partner of many years, and Kim, despite her vociferous defense, knowing that Howard is probably justified in wanting to do so. But it comes back in full force in both instances when Gus' men tell him about the results of Hector's tests, as the light streaming through the window in the car and in his office leaves Gus partially in shadow as he struggles with himself and how he should proceed with his attempt to keep Hector alive so that only he can exact the full extent of the vengeance he desires ("I decide what he deserves. No one else.")


There is no shadow in the moment of direct conflict. When Ignacio and Arturo confront Gus' men over the number of kis that they're picking up, everything is brightly lit. The conflict is overt. The threat is real. There is no shadow across it. Everyone knows the motivations at hand and what actions they will drive. But the contrast returns when Arturo is killed and the implications of what Ignacio has done and what he will now have to do are spelled out to him by Gus. As direct as the threat may have been to Arturo, the shadow returns for Ignacio, denying him the assertion that he made to his father about how he was working on getting out of a bad situation, as he is now only that much deeper into darkness with someone who is far more dangerous than Hector.


I've really enjoyed Michelle MacLaren's work over the years on Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, precisely for her deep understanding of story and how to present it in a visual manner. This may have been her finest effort yet in that respect. It doesn't hurt that Gilligan's writers continue to outdo themselves in presenting the cast with so much red meat to work with. Take Jimmy's interview with Neff Copiers. He knows they'll reject him as unsuitable for a sales job after having been a lawyer, whether it's because of a lack of actual experience or a belief that he'll decide the job is beneath him and they'll have to find someone else when he moves on to another law gig. So he goes back in to convince them that he has what it takes and easily does so. But his own self-loathing; the recognition that that kind of hucksterism is what he's been doing his whole life, prevents him from accepting the job that he wins. All he can think of is how these guys are precisely the kind of marks he's been working since forever and how he won't be able to respect them for giving in so easily to his routine. And, of course, how he can't stand himself at the moment for everything he's done to Chuck and how he doesn't deserve anything good to come his away, especially when it was achieved by Slippin' Jimmy.


Full marks to Rhea Seehorn in this episode. Her scene with Howard was one of her best moments in the entire series, as she ate him alive and confronted him with his own ulterior motives, while she took the opportunity to vent her frustration at the situation that Jimmy still keeps her in. She's doing amazing work and I hope it lands her other solid roles in the future. Similarly, Michael Mando as Ignacio has been getting progressively better as the series has moved along. The emotion on his face when Gus corners him and he realizes just how deep his personal hole has gotten was great. It was extremely entertaining to see Gus doing some of his own dirty work again, too. Other little details, like an appearance by The Cousins at Hector's bedside, and Jimmy and Kim deciding to watch White Heat, a noir film in this most noirish of BCS episodes and a film about a man confessing to a lesser crime to hide a larger one, pushed this one among the best of the series, in my opinion. I was still intrigued by episode one of this season, but episode two has launched BCS back near the top of my TV agenda (right behind Liverpool games.) The series can't get much better, which only makes me want to see how they're going to outdo themselves as we move along.

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