Thursday, April 30, 2020

Pandemic Viewing

Quarantine is both a great time for watching TV, and a terrible time for anything that requires more than a fleeting attention span. A lot of people seem to be drawn to comfort viewing, to shows that you can have on in the background and tune out for minutes at a stretch without missing much. I've done that, but I also feel that a weird period deserves weird entertainment. The shows I want to talk about here are all boundary-pushing in one way or another. Not always successfully--some of them are less clever than they think, and others are odder than they need to be--but they all capture the strange, otherworldly feeling that permeates our lives right now. They're also all really beautiful to watch, with lots of gorgeous natural scenery, vibrant urban settings, and psychedelic animation--just the thing you need when you've spent weeks staring at the same walls. I'm sure one of them will be a worthy distraction from the more dispiriting variety of strangeness that now dominates our lives.

(On a completely different note, I wrote about HBO's adaptation of The Plot Against America over at Lawyers, Guns & Money.)
  • Dispatches from Elsewhere - Jason Segel's first major project in years (which he also created, co-wrote, and co-directed) is so palpably earnest and well-intended that one feels almost like a villain for criticizing it. Not that Dispatches is bad, but it plays a slightly annoying two-step of gesturing at profundity, and then, when you point out that the show isn't really that profound, insisting that this is in fact the point. Based loosely on the documentary The Institute, about people who participate in a large, multi-player scavenger-hunt-slash-LARP, the show follows a group of people who fall into what might be a game, and might be a deadly serious battle between competing, shadowy forces. Segel plays Peter, a withdrawn, lonely man whose outwardly successful life conceals social and emotional barrenness. After answering a cryptic street ad, Peter forms a team with three other characters: Simone (Eve Lindley), a recently-transitioned young woman who is discovering even after taking that huge step towards affirming her identity, she still struggles with making friends and forming connections; Janice (Sally Field), a retiree whose husband's recent debilitating illness has left her wondering whether she gave up on her dreams and independence to become a wife and mother; and Fredwynn (André Benjamin), an abrasive genius who cares more about being right than about other people's feelings. Together, they are recruited by The Jejune Institute to play a series of games and puzzles, in search of the elusive Clara (Cecilia Balagot), who has left murals and environmental art throughout the show's setting of Philadelphia. But just as quickly, they are contacted by The Elsewhere Society, who insist that Clara has been kidnapped and must be rescued. Is the whole thing a game or a piece of viral marketing, as Simone and Janice insist? Is it, as Fredwynn is certain, a shadowy conspiracy to be untangled? Or is it a sign that the players are somehow special and destined for more than their mundane lives, as Peter not-so-secretly hopes?

    Dispatches is too twee, and the puzzles its characters work through too obviously designed to be games, not actual hurdles, for us to believe that there's anything deeper here than a bit of fun. And, to be fair, this is clearly the conclusion the show is leading us to--Peter and Fredwynn's conviction that there must be more to it, that Clara is a real person in need of rescue, is never entirely convincing (though, in the end, also not entirely wrong, which is only one way in which Dispatches tries to have its cake and eat it too). But the result is a series that feels more engaging for its mundane aspects than its fantastical ones. The four characters are well-drawn and -acted, and their anguish is wrenching in part because, as the show insists, it is so familiar and universal--feeling stuck, not knowing how to make a change that will give you the happier life you know you're capable of, worrying that change is no longer possible, and not being willing to shake up your comfortable lifestyle, even though that might be the only path to making something better of it. Segel seems to have recognized that his character type--the disaffected, middle class white guy who is plucked out of his comfortable but boring life by the hand of destiny--is a stock type that has been given center stage in too many stories already, so he makes Peter almost comically withdrawn and passive, allowing the other characters to take center stage. He also gives Peter and Simone a love story, which feels quietly revolutionary but is mainly just really well done and very romantic--including the parts of it where Simone insists that Peter can't use his relationship with her as a substitute for developing his own personality.

    The problem with making this sort of "the parts are greater than the whole" criticism is that Dispatches anticipates it in a way that feels too clever by half. Of course the mundane problems and ordinary relationships of its characters are more interesting and engaging than its candy-colored, gamified adventure plot! That's the point. And, well, that's kind of annoying. The series ends with a metafictional turn in which Segel plays a (fictionalized, I think) version of himself as a recovering alcoholic trying to find the next step in his life and career, who writes Dispatches from Elsewhere as a way of conveying to his audience that they don't need an adventure plot to make them special, but are special in their ordinariness. Which is not an unworthy message, but also feels like a way for the show to slip out of any criticism. The very fact that it isn't about anything terribly important or different is part of the argument it's trying to make. And yet even that argument doesn't feel particularly profound or revelatory, despite the show's most earnest efforts to convince us otherwise. It's ultimately hard to know whether to recommend Dispatches from Elsewhere. There's a lot here that's worth watching for, including some beautiful visuals and a good use of its urban setting in a way that makes it feel both welcoming and full of mystery. But the show amounting to so little, while insisting that this is actually a lot, also makes it hard to talk up.

  • Devs - The first foray into television by Alex Garland, of Ex Machina and Annihilation fame, is a visual and auditory delight. Or maybe delight is the wrong word. Devs is full of gorgeously composed yet undeniably sinister images--the research lab where much of its story takes place, decorated in russet and gold and tucked away in a ziggurat whose only access point is a slow-moving, transparent car floating across a vacuum; the gigantic, molded plastic statue of a playing toddler that looms over the wooded campus of the technology company where the lab is located--and it has an overpowering, insistent soundtrack, by Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, and The Insects, which never fails to put you in a state of anxiety and dread. It's such an impeccably made show that one is tempted to give it more credit for interesting ideas and profound messages than its actual story ends up earning. That story begins with Sergei (Karl Glusman) a developer at the Silicon Valley behemoth Amaya, being invited by the company's guru-like founder Forest (Nick Offerman, sporting a delightfully awful haircut) to join a secretive division called Devs. When Sergei disappears and is later found dead of an apparent suicide, his girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) is instantly suspicious, and begins an investigation that leads her to the purpose of the Devs project.

    The core problem of Devs is that it can't decide whether its purpose is to castigate the cult-like mentality that accumulates around technology companies, or to tell a science fiction story in which one of those companies develops a genuinely world-changing technology (instead of just hocking gadgets and snarfing up users' data). And so it ends up doing neither. There's initially a lot of fun to be had trying to parse the cryptic exchanges between Forest and his second-in-command, Katie (Alison Pill), and the other engineers on their team, as they discuss the implications of what they're developing (though eventually that cryptic quality starts to feel like a way of dragging the story out, and ultimately it's hard not to conclude that Devs might have worked better at feature length). But when the secret is finally revealed, it is a concept that has become almost old hat in science fiction--a system that has modeled the world so perfectly that it can predict the future with absolute accuracy.

    Having established this concept, however, Devs doesn't entirely seem to know what to do with it. It condemns Forest as an ersatz prophet, so obsessed with the system's ability to show him his deceased daughter that he sanctions murder and treats people like pawns. But at the same time, Devs is literally world-changing, a godlike technology that upends notions of free will, as its developers find themselves incapable of acting any way except the one it predicts for them. One might have expected the show to get into the implications of such a technology for government, society, and civil rights and freedoms, as similar treatments of this premise have done in series like Westworld or Person of Interest. But while a minor subplot involves a senator funding Forest's research, it never goes anywhere, and beyond establishing the awesome potential of its technology, the show never reaches for anything beyond the mundanely personal--Forest's monomaniacal dedication to his grief; Katie's dead-eyed loyalty to him; Lily's refusal to be bought off or intimidated from investigating Sergei's death.

    It's that last one that is the show's greatest weakness. Mizuno has been a perennial scene-stealer in works like Ex Machina and Maniac, and the time seemed more than ripe for her to get a starring role. But Lily is a thankless part, full of informed traits that conceal a near-total lack of personality. Though ostensibly a story about Lily avenging the death of the man she loved, Devs ends up treating her more like a romantic object than a protagonist. Having recruited her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) to help investigate Sergei's death, the show seems more invested in validating Jamie's anger over his and Lily's breakup, and rewarding his dedication to her by having her take him to bed, than in exploring Lily's own ambivalent feelings towards both men. And the ultimate revelation that Lily is, somehow, the only person capable of seeing the Devs system's predictions for her and defying them, feels entirely unearned. Instead of making Lily look special, it makes the other characters look stupid for not even attempting the obvious. Devs ends on a note of great ponderousness and faux-profundity that fails to obscure just how thin the show's concepts and ideas are. It's worth watching for its look and sound, but ends up having very little to say.

  • Tales From the Loop - SF fans seem to have overlooked this strange, quasi-anthology series from Amazon. Which is a shame, because it's a lovely, melancholy show that does things that a lot of televised SF doesn't attempt. Based on the art book by Simon Stålenhag (whose The Electric State became the first art book nominated for the Clarke Award last year), Tales From the Loop is set in the small town of Mercer, which sits above an underground research facility known as The Loop. Though the show never reveals much about the Loop or what's being done there, the town is littered with artifacts that have strange properties--a doohickey that can stop time, a structure that echoes back to you the voice of you future self--and spots where time and space bend around on themselves. On another show, this premise might have been the starting point for an action story or a technothriller, but Tales From the Loop takes it in a more measured, contemplative direction. Each episode follows a different resident of the town, mostly connected to a single extended family, as their encounters with the town's weirdness help to illuminate their emotional state and struggles. Two teenage boys discover an object that allows them to switch bodies and end up experiencing lifelong consequences; a fastidious, solitary security guard at the Loop crosses over into an alternate universe, where his alternate is married to the man of his dreams; a father obsessed with protecting his family buys a robot with whom he hopes to scare off a prowler; a young boy crosses a stream in the woods and emerges twenty years later than when he left.

    Fittingly for a show based on an art book, Tales From the Loop is a feast for the eyes. The bucolic natural setting of Mercer is dotted with oddball technology--a barn with an enormous antenna lodged in its roof; a tractor that floats on anti-grav suspenders; discarded robots that wander in the woods; the mysterious, glowing pylons that loom over almost every location in town. Contrasted with the show's meticulous production design (the setting is a non-specific, more socially accepting version of the 70s or 80s), it creates a worldbuilding effect that is irresistible, a lived-in science fictional world. The soundscape, as well, is immersive, combining natural sounds with sweeping music (by Philip Glass) that conveys the show's prevailing tone of melancholy at the passage of time, and the way technology exposes human frailty and foibles. It's all quite lovely, though if I have one criticism of the show, it's that this is an approach that can sometimes overstay its welcome. I found myself thinking that Tales might have worked better as a half-hour drama. Though the slowness of its storytelling is clearly deliberate, taking long moments to let characters take in their situation and react to it, this is a choice that can end up delivering diminishing returns. Still, even at a somewhat bloated episode length, Tales is worth seeking out. Its weirdness, and its characters' familiar confusion at the world and the mess they've made of their lives, feel exactly right for this moment.

  • The Midnight Gospel - If Tales From the Loop is delightfully weird, Netflix's animated series The Midnight Gospel is overwhelmingly--some might say, overpoweringly--so. Simply explaining what the series, from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward, is about can take some time. Set on a fantastical world, a mobius loop floating in space, the series follows middle aged slacker Clancy (Duncan Trusell), who lives in a trailer and has recently purchased a "universe simulator", a device that allows him to visit any number of fantastical worlds (though many of the available options contain no surviving intelligent life because of "operator error"). Clancy visits these worlds and finds people to interview for his "spacecast". But, in a further twist, these interviews are actually real ones which Trusell conducted on his podcast with guests that include author Anne Lamott, mortician and blogger Caitlin Doughty, producer and falsely-conviced member of the West Memphis Three Damien Echols, and Trusell's own mother Deneen Fendig, who recorded her interview before her death in 2013.

    As Clancy interviews these figures, his and their on-screen avatars engage in adventures that seem to have little or nothing to do with the subjects being discussed, which range from philosophy to religion to our attitudes towards death. In the first episode, for example, Clancy interviews the American president on the world he visits (voiced by Dr. Drew), which is undergoing a zombie apocalypse. So while the two escape the ravening hordes of zombies, picking them off with weapons or mowing through them in trucks, they are also casually discussing drug use and whether our attitude towards drugs is misguided. In another episode, Echols discusses his relationship with the occult and how magic plays a role in various philosophies while his character, a humanoid figure with a fishbowl for a head, captains a ship crewed by cats through a iceberg-strewn ocean. The kooky appeal of the show is rooted first in its psychedelic animation, which often veers towards the scatological or gruesome (in one episode, Lamott play a giant dog-deer hybrid who converses with Clancy as they are both transported through the rendering process of a meat production plant, finally emerging as a still-talking, pink slurry), and second in the contrast between the extraordinary events on screen and the wide-ranging, inquisitive, friendly conversation on the soundtrack.

    I imagine that some people will be completely won over by The Midnight Gospel, but I found myself admiring it, and the very fact that it even managed to be made, more than I enjoyed it. I suspect the series might have worked better for me in weekly installments, to give one time to take in both the visual excess on display and the ideas under discussion. But with only eight episodes of about 20 minutes each, it's easy to rush through the whole thing, and eventually the glut of ideas and imagery can feel overwhelming. I found myself tuning out, either looking at the pretty pictures without paying much attention to the topic under discussion, or listening to the conversation while looking at a second screen and ignoring the animation. Still, the idea of being able to visit strange and fantastical worlds from the comfort of your own home has an obvious appeal right now, as does the possibility of exploring more complicated, far-reaching ideas than pandemic mitigation strategies and their failures. For some people, I imagine that The Midnight Gospel will be the perfect escape in this moment.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Better Call Kim: Thoughts on Better Call Saul's Fifth Season

When the creators of Breaking Bad announced, six or seven years ago, that they were working on a spin-off prequel series focused on Walter White's loud-mouthed, sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, I think I wasn't the only one to roll her eyes. The whole thing reeked of a cash-in: take a well-liked minor character, with a memorable catchphrase, played by a talented comedian, from a show that had become a runaway success a little too close to the end of its run to have really wrung all the benefits out of that, throw him in some new adventures, and watch the money roll in. That Better Call Saul has instead turned out to be a heartfelt, intelligent, winning series that has surpassed Breaking Bad in almost every respect is by now a commonly-accepted view, and yet despite agreeing with it wholeheartedly, I nevertheless approached the show's fifth, penultimate season with a feeling of, if not fatigue, then resignation. I wasn't sure the show had anything new to show me. What I want to talk about in this essay is why I had that expectation, how Better Call Saul still managed to surprise me, and why I think its ability to do so is rooted in the same qualities that made it such an unexpected success in the first place.

Given how widely—and rightly—praised Breaking Bad was, you might have expected Better Call Saul to rest on the previous show's laurels. To deliver a similar caliber of tight plotting, ingenious problem-solving, thrilling heists, clever direction, and gorgeous New Mexico scenery, simply with a different story and cast of characters. Better Call Saul does this, but from the first moment it also feels like a show reckoning with Breaking Bad, trying to learn from its missteps and do better. Take, for example, the character of Ignacio "Nacho" Varga (Michael Mando), the low-level drug dealer who finds himself caught between the Mexican-based Salamanca cartel, and the ruthless crime boss Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). When I watched the Breaking Bad sequel movie El Camino last year, it suddenly occurred to me that Nacho is a better-considered version of Jesse Pinkman. Like Jesse, he is fundamentally good-hearted, but also weak-willed. He becomes a criminal out of greed and a lack of options, and is carried in the wake of stronger personalities, committing worse and worse acts at their behest, and because he fears what they might do to him if he said no. But whereas Breaking Bad tended to infantilize Jesse, obscuring his responsibility for his own bad choices and blaming other people for leading him astray, Better Call Saul treats Nacho like an adult. He's a sympathetic character whom we want to see escape his difficult situation, but we're never in any doubt over why he's in that mess. Neither is Nacho, which is perhaps the reason why he's so far been far more successful at striking back at the people who try to control him than Jesse ever was. It's a more satisfying, more complex portrait, a second go-around that improves on the original (not least because in Nacho, the Breaking Bad universe finally breaks its streak of treating Latino characters as an undifferentiated mass of badass but terrifying criminal potential).

In the character of its protagonist, as well, Better Call Saul feels like a show reckoning with its franchise's history and trying to improve upon it. From the first moment, in which we meet not Saul Goodman, criminal attorney, but Jimmy McGill, struggling lawyer trying to find his way, there seems to be an attempt to create a softer character than Walter White, and thus avoid the veneer of coolness that turned him from a human character into a design on a t-shirt. The Jimmy we meet at the beginning of Better Call Saul is not a repressed genius like Walt, but a frustrated swindler, a small fry struggling to be taken seriously by the big fish in Albequerque's legal pond, working out of the back of a nail salon, coming up with desperate schemes to acquire clients and keep them out of jail. Despite how pathetic this portrait sounds, here's also a lot to admire and enjoy about Jimmy. Like most protagonists in the Breaking Bad universe, he's smart, resourceful, hard-working, a natural problem-solver. And in one of Better Call Saul's key innovations on Breaking Bad's original format, he is also a former con artist who uses those skills in his legal career, spinning fantasies whose goal is anything from the prosaic and seedy to the high-minded and noble.

The fundamental difference between Jimmy and Walt is, first, that Jimmy is a joyful person, who takes genuine pleasure out wringing a victory against a gigantic legal firm, or swindling a self-satisfied fat-cat out of the price of an expensive bottle of tequila. And second, that Jimmy is trying to change. He's a much more humble character than Walt, because his con artist ways have landed him in trouble one too many times, and as we meet him at the beginning of the show he is earnestly trying to go straight. Breaking Bad, we were told, was a show about change, but the transformation it ultimately depicted felt hollow, a loss of humanity rather than an exploration of it. Better Call Saul is a show about a man trying to change for the better, and its core dilemma is the tension between the two parts of Jimmy's personality—his joy at using his brains and creativity to get one over people, and his genuine desire to go straight.

Again and again, Jimmy finds himself at an impasse in his career, or convinces himself that the fight he's in is too lopsided to be fought with conventional, legal means. And, again and again, the extra-legal maneuvering he comes up with to even the score or strike one for the little guy has consequences that he can't predict or control, and which end up impacting on the people closest to him. It's a more productive tension than Breaking Bad's moralistic "will Walt become a terrible person who is nevertheless much more fun to watch?" because there are arguments for both sides of Jimmy's personality, and so the show becomes more nerve-wracking and compelling than Breaking Bad ever was, even though we know that Jimmy's struggle to be better will ultimately end in failure.

If there's a Walt-like character in Better Call Saul, it is Jimmy's brother Chuck (Michael McKean), which in itself feels like a repudiation of some of the choices made in Breaking Bad. Brilliant but cold, Chuck is a highly-respected lawyer and all-around success story who has spent his life cleaning up Jimmy's messes, and seething over the fact that, despite being an undeniable fuck-up, everyone seems to like Jimmy better. We, the audience, can understand why that is—Jimmy is a fundamentally kind person who puts genuine thought and effort into his interactions with other people, sometimes because he's trying to get something out of them, but often simply because that's who he is. Whereas Chuck is imperious and transactional, allowing his pride in his intellect and sense of superiority to justify running roughshod over other people's feelings. At the same time, we can also see that Chuck is often in the right, and that his distrust of Jimmy, and hurt over never being preferred over him, are well-earned.

The conflict between the brothers drives the show's first three seasons, and makes them some of the most exhilarating and emotionally wrenching TV I've ever seen. Jimmy initially tries to prove himself to Chuck, but eventually realizes that nothing he can do will ever be good enough. That his attempts to win Chuck's approval by following him into the legal profession in fact do nothing but horrify the older McGill brother, who sees the law as a hallowed realm into which a conman and shyster like Jimmy should never have been admitted. Jimmy's response is to strike at Chuck with increasing cruelty, which we nevertheless root for because Chuck is so unpleasant and so unlovable, and has clearly brought this enmity on himself by refusing to unbend and accept a brother who has tried to please him. The whole thing comes to a crescendo at the end of the show's third season, when Jimmy outsmarts Chuck's efforts get him disbarred and turns them back on him, discrediting Chuck and causing his firm to push him into retirement. Chuck, robbed of the thing in which he has rooted his entire identity, commits gruesome suicide.

And from that point, a lot of air comes out of the show. As I wrote a few weeks ago, in my review of a book that borrows a lot from the anti-hero prestige dramas of which Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are key examples, "The end of an anti-hero story comes well before the end. It's at the point where our protagonist finally becomes the person he was always trying—usually without admitting it—to be." Chuck's death is that point for Jimmy. It releases him from the burden of having to be seen by the one person whose good opinion he couldn't win or swindle. There are still steps along the path to Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman, and the fourth season shows us some of them, as he shakes off, first, any lingering guilt over the role he played in Chuck's death, and finally, any sense of connection he had once felt towards his brother. And there will no doubt be more twists and turns, particularly when it comes to the show's cartel-focused storylines, in which Gus and the Salamancas fight over power and territory, a battle into whose orbit Jimmy is slowly being pulled. But fundamentally, Jimmy is now on rails. It will be interesting to see how his story concludes (or rather, reaches the point where Breaking Bad starts), but I don't think there will be anything in it to surprise us. He is the person he was always trying to be, even if he's not yet completely Saul Goodman.

The second-biggest surprise in Better Caul Saul's fifth season is that the show recognizes this. In a conversation with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Gus's laconic, ultra-competent fixer, Jimmy tries to bargain his way out of acknowledging that he is now knee-deep in cartel business, following a job-gone-wrong that left him in the middle of a shootout. Mike, with typical resigned self-awareness, lays down the facts while making it clear to the audience that the show realizes what stage in its story it has reached:
We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off, but eventually you're back on it. And the road we're on led us out to the desert, and everything that happened there, and straight back to where we are right now. And nothing, nothing can be done about that.
The biggest surprise in the season is that, having brought its protagonist to the end of his emotional journey, if not his actual one, Better Call Saul refuses to coast for the remainder of its run. It turns around and finds another emotional journey to focus on, one that gives the season a renewed sense of urgency and tension. That journey belongs, of course, to Jimmy's lover, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). To begin with, Kim felt like another way for Better Call Saul to make up for Breaking Bad's missteps. That show's heroine, Walt's wife Skyler, was famously derided and reviled by fans for getting in her husband's path as he ascended the ladder of Albequerque's criminal world. But for all the conversation that spurred, about Bad Fans and fannish misogyny, what the reaction to Skyler came down to was that the show's writers had positioned her as a spoilsport. She made decisions that were perfectly rational for a person in her situation, at first unwittingly and later knowingly trying to stall Walt's criminal career and protect her family from it. But the result was a character who was always an obstacle to the protagonist's forward motion, never a protagonist in her own right.

Kim feels like a direct response to that failure, not in the Cool Girl way of never interfering with Jimmy's progress, but in the far more exciting, and extremely rare way of having her own storylines and agenda, which Jimmy, a natural-born follower, often subordinates himself to. Kim shares a lot of qualities with Jimmy. She's smart and hard-working and creative, and takes a genuine pleasure in her work and in being good at it that is still an extremely rare quality for a female character (unless they're treated as pathetic workaholics who don't know how to live outside of the office and have to be cured of that failing). But she's also better than Jimmy—a better person, a better lawyer, and a better player of the game, ascending the corporate law ladder and arriving, by the beginning of the fifth season, at a senior position in one of Albequerque's most prestigious law firms. But like Jimmy, Kim has another side to her personality. She may have won the game, but she also sees how rigged it is, and she keeps finding ways to set herself apart from the people who play it whole-heartedly, whether taking on pro bono cases for the public defender, or participating in (and eventually instigating) some of Jimmy's cons, just for the thrill of feeling like an outsider tilting at The Establishment, rather than part of that establishment herself.

For people who, like myself, have fallen head over heels in love with Kim Wexler, the question of her fate has become one of the most urgent ones about the show. What, we keep asking ourself, is Jimmy going to do to her? How is he going to screw up her life? What scheme will he rope her into that will go catastrophically wrong, and tear down everything she's so painstakingly built? Will she die? Will she go to prison? Will she be publicly humiliated and stripped of her legal license? Or will she come to her senses and drop him, completing her transformation into a member of the elite that Jimmy could never reach? A lot of people in Better Call Saul's fifth season seem to be asking the same questions. People on the legitimate side of Kim's life, like her former boss Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian), keep advising her to leave Jimmy, warning her about his unstable, shady side on the assumption that someone as upright as Kim couldn't possibly know about it. People in Jimmy's criminal life keep expressing surprise at their relationship, wondering what someone as classy as Kim could see in him, and warning him that by revealing details about his cartel connections to her, he is putting her in danger. Even Jimmy himself finally gives voice to a worry that has probably eaten away at him since the beginning of his and Kim's relationship. "Am I bad for you?" he asks her, after the cartel boss he'd been dragooned into working for arrives at their apartment and terrorizes them.

The answer, which Kim gives to everyone questioning her and which the show gives to us, is at once exhilarating and terrifying. Why, the show seems to be asking, would you assume that someone as awesome, as determined, as in control of her own life as Kim Wexler, could be destroyed by anyone other than herself? In a mid-season episode, we see a flashback of a teenage Kim refusing to get into her drunk mother's car. The lesson seems to be that Kim has always been drawn to toxic but charismatic people, but that she's also had the ability to draw boundaries with them, and keep them from dragging her down with them. That's what she did in earlier seasons of Better Call Saul—when Jimmy suggests that he and Kim should form a law firm together, she considers, and then counters with an offer to share an office while operating separately, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of entangling herself with someone she knows to be untrustworthy. But in the fifth season, with Kim having seemingly achieved everything she ever aspired to and finding it unsatisfying, she throws caution to the wind. When Jimmy, in one of his classic clusterfucks, causes chaos in Kim's career, we (and he) expect Kim to put her foot down, and even to end their relationship. Instead, she proposes marriage. The girl who once knew better than to get into a car with a drunk now loves—and, more importantly, needs—Jimmy badly enough to tie herself to him in a way that, she thinks, will protect them both from his destructiveness.

But Kim's transformation over the course of the season isn't driven only by love, but by her frustrated sense of adventure and search for meaning, which her pro bono work can no longer satisfy. She enlists Jimmy's help in outsmarting her own top client, who is trying to throw a recalcitrant tenant out of his house. She quits her prestigious big-law job. She exposes herself to Jimmy's cartel connections and calls their attention to her. And, in the season finale, she engages Jimmy in a risky scheme to frame Howard in order to force a settlement in a lawsuit from which Jimmy stands to profit handsomely. This isn't some lovestruck, verging-on-middle-aged woman entangling herself in illegality because her no-good boyfriend dragged her into it. It's an intelligent, determined woman deciding what kind of person she wants to be, and realizing that that isn't the person society tells her she should be.

It would be triumphant if it wasn't obviously all going to go wrong, but either way, Kim's journey adds a sense of excitement and possibility to the fifth season of Better Call Saul that I didn't think the show was still capable of. Better Call Saul is still Jimmy's show, but by giving Kim her own journey that parallels his—and of a type that is still so rare for a female character—the show reinvents itself and its main character. It's the crowning example of why Better Call Saul has proven to be a better show than Breaking Bad—because even in a story whose ending we know, and whose moral we thought we understood, it finds ways to innovate and become something else.