– By Ben L.
I don’t usually do this because television isn’t my forte, but this week felt like a home run for the shows that I’ve been following this year and I thought it would be great to share why you should watch them too. Be warned: Minor spoilers below.
This week started with the premiere of the new Vince Gilligan series Better Call Saul, featuring everyone’s favourite bus bench lawyer Saul Goodman. His return has been long-awaited by many since Breaking Bad concluded one and a half years ago. But I have the good fortune of not having to endure that arduously long wait for another Albuquerque, New Mexico story by Gilligan because I had only resumed watching Season 2 of Breaking Bad a couple of months back after leaving it on hold for about two years, and at the time of writing this post have finished watching the first episode of the final season. So my memory is as fresh as the chicken breast in Los Pollos when it’s time to transition to the spinoff series. As our resident TV guru Qijian E. told me: “I envy you that you can watch Breaking Bad from scratch.”
So, how’s the spinoff/prequel/sequel to one of the greatest television series of all time? We all know what milking the cash cow usually leads to, so like many people I was going in with very low expectations but still very excited to see Bob Odenkirk return with all that cunningness and greasy tactics that his character is known for. AMC definitely had balls of steel when they launched Better Call Saul with two back-to-back episodes on Sunday and Monday night – if it flopped there would have been a catastrophic explosion bigger than the one at Casa Tranquila. But at least people would still remember the network for its Breaking Bad success.
Turns out that Saul Goodman doesn’t need to ride on Walter White’s coattails. Even if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is fine on its own – you would only miss the significance of the supporting characters who have returned from their adventure with Mr White. Gilligan has also selected the right storyline to do a spinoff for his beloved series – by showing the transformation of a poor man’s lawyer to an associate of a drug dealer, he adds more depth to Saul Goodman and also gives himself the opportunity to flesh out the storylines of other great supporting characters from Breaking Bad, most noteworthy being Mike Ehrmantraut, played by Jonathan Banks, who will be a huge presence this time.
Better Call Saul is just as beautifully shot as its predecessor, if not even prettier at times. The show retains Breaking Bad‘s hallmarks of composition and unconventional placements of the camera with a seemingly heavier emphasis on shadows and colours. I particularly liked the scene at the carpark where Saul bums a smoke from the female lawyer and she is later framed in the door of the lift lobby. The pacing of the story is also excellent, already teasing several key plot points in the pilot that have me curious about the relationships that Saul has with the other characters. (Why is Saul’s brother Chuck so afraid of electromagnetic waves?!)
So, how’s the spinoff of one of the greatest television series of all time, you ask again. It’s excellent. In fact I think AMC has spoiled us with a two-episode premiere because now just one episode every week wouldn’t cut it, assuming they keep the momentum. Normally milking the cash cow would be unadvisable, and Vince Gilligan surely knows that. Which is why it took him so long to actually develop a spinoff that would not tarnish the legacy that Breaking Bad has painstakingly created, and I’m sure the fans would be glad he did.
Things are getting a bit more interesting in this week’s The Flash as Detective Joe West starts his own private (re-)investigation into the murder of Barry Allen’s mum, while on the S.T.A.R Labs front we’re finally given a closer look at Firestorm after his previous few cameo appearances. Barry also tries to up his game while getting over Iris by going out with her colleague Linda Park (Malese Jow).
The big surprise (or not, depending on whether you have read the comics and/or partaken in online discussion) is the revelation of the identity of one of the two speedsters at Barry’s house the night his mother died. This effectively narrows the whole debate about the true identity of Dr Wells to maybe two possible theories. It’s taken a while for The Flash to get going with the mystery of Dr Wells after constantly teasing his secrets at the end of the first few episodes, but the show is now shaping up nicely for an eventual revelation and perhaps showdown that could be hard to take for the folks at S.T.A.R Labs. If you look back on the first half of this season, the pacing has been deliberate to develop this mentor/father bond that Dr Wells has with his colleagues and that is a good set-up for what is going to happen at the end of this season.
Actually, the bigger surprise is the fact that Flash may not be able to have sex because he might suffer from premature ejaculation due to his super-speed. Poor Barry, first he can’t get his first true love, and now he can’t sleep with other women. I thought Linda might have been overreacting a bit to Barry having to give up on their steamy hot date like responsible superheroes do, but I guess it would be hard to fit in a bit more development when this week’s episode was already trying to cram in two separate investigations.
If Barry is going through an uplifting period after his not-so-successful confession to Iris, it’s completely downhill for Dr Caitlin Snow, who in the previous episode had already gotten over Ronnie’s death but now has to deal with losing her fiancee once more after being injected with a slimmer of hope that he and Dr Martin Stein could be separated from each other. And with the evil General Wade Eiling now in the fold to capture Firestorm, things are surely heating up for yet another confrontation between S.T.A.R. Labs and the military. The first over Plastique was enjoyable, but now that General Eiling has eyed a main supporting character of the show, I’m hoping this subplot with the military would be used as a vehicle to develop Firestorm without having to depend heavily on Dr Wells and co. I mean, they’ve already got their hands full, especially when we are expecting the arrival of Gorilla Grodd.
So, this week’s The Flash has been a thoroughly enjoyable episode and probably one of the best written ones too. Firestorm and Detective West’s subplots were well developed and only Barry’s relationship with Linda felt a little subpar in comparison. If the upcoming episodes are tight yet wholly fleshed out like this week’s, then The Flash could end its first season on a very strong note.
If Flash has been having a fun ride since his first episode, the same could not be said for his idol Oliver Queen. I’m a huge fan of Arrow, but despite all the biased extra love that I would give to Season 3, it hasn’t quite hit the level that made Season 2 the best live-action comic book adaptation for television, and at times there’s also the bit of uncertainty that plagued several episodes in the first season. Storylines are draggy, characters are whiny (ie Felicity Smoak), and the only thing I’ve really enjoyed so far is how Maseo has transitioned from being Oliver’s buddy in the flashbacks to an important present-day character.
Season 3’s start was sluggish, but it gradually got better until the revelation of Sarah’s killer, when it seemed things would go up the way of Season 2 because guess what, Malcolm Merlyn is really one scheming son-of-a-b****. Expectations were high when Ra’s al Ghul was introduced as the main villain for this season and gave Oliver a somewhat chilling lesson on sword-fighting, but I think the general consensus is that Oliver’s resurrection has been far from satisfying. Perhaps the unfulfilled desire to see the Lazarus Pit is to blame, but using magical herbs and some healing prowess of Tatsu to bring Oliver back from the dead seems a little too far-fetched in Arrow‘s storyline that has always tried to ground itself in reality. Including this week, it’s been four episodes since Oliver’s seemingly fatal plunge off the cliff but we still don’t know how those damn herbs worked! Tatsu should really not keep the secret of resurrection to herself, that’s selfish.
After so many false hopes about where Arrow will pick up to finish this season like it had last year, I am convinced that this week’s episode is the true turning point for Season 3. Why? No more secrets! Well, at least most of them. Firstly, let’s give a round of applause to Thea Queen who, after 59 episodes, is finally inducted into her brother’s little vigilante group. No words could describe Thea’s emotions when she saw the green hoodie displayed in the glass cabinet beneath the very nightclub that she runs; she must have felt so confused now knowing that her brother has been the city’s hero all this time while she had left him to live with her biological father who also happens to be Oliver’s sworn enemy.
Or not. This week’s episode picks up from last week’s emotional trauma that has hit the Arrow gang, with Oliver deciding that teaming up with Merlyn is the only solution to defeat Ra’s al Ghul while the rest of the team are left wondering if this was the result of a head injury from a hard landing after falling over the cliff. Felicity, Oliver’s love interest, was disappointed. Laurel, Oliver’s former love interest, was incensed. Even Thea, now the newest member of the team, cannot believe that her brother would do such a thing. Earlier I said there were no more secrets among our group of heroes, well they still aren’t telling little Speedy that she has Sarah’s blood on her hands. But I’m holding out hope that Oliver would tell his sister how bad she had been when they go for their sibling hike on Lian Yu. By the way did anyone notice the juxtaposition here – in Seasons 1 and 2, the flashbacks took place on the hellish island. But it is a reversal of locations this time round with Oliver’s present-day scenes taking place where he had been five years earlier, while Amanda Waller takes him back home to Starling City in the flashbacks for yet another dirty mission. It must have been so frustrating to be Oliver then when all his attempts to let the world know he is still alive had failed. If I were him I would resort to using messenger pigeons – let’s see how Argus tries to take down a flock of 100 birds flying in different directions – even Deadshot has his limits.
The other big secret is the one that Laurel has been keeping from her father, good old Detective/Captain Lance. The poor man had been hoping to hear from his daughter Sarah for the longest time, and even thought he was talking to her in an alleyway the previous episode. But after some counselling with Oliver and two doses of the hallucinatory drug Vertigo, Laurel finally decided that it was time to tell her dad the truth, regardless of whether it would cause him a heart attack. Thank goodness that subplot has come to an end because let’s face it, Laurel is a terrible liar. But she has become an improved fighter! Even daddy is proud of her punch on a police officer gone berserk that saved numerous lives. Her progression to being the Canary has been stunted for reason – no one becomes a highly skilled fighter overnight just by wearing a tight black leather jacket – but now that Oliver will be gone from Star City once again and Diggle still relegated to being the driver, it would be great to see Laurel being Roy’s partner to kick more ass in the meantime.
The writing and pacing of this week’s Arrow is a marked improvement from the numerous so-so episodes this season. Some emotional baggage has been discarded, a couple of loose ends were tied and it sets the stage for the inevitable welcome of Ra’s al Ghul in Star City. With Thea in the fold, Oliver can focus on protecting his loved ones without having to disguise his identity and hopefully that will translate into tight writing for the remaining 10 episodes, especially when we expect to see Deathstroke return. Malcolm Merlyn promoted to series regular sounded like an excellent choice when it was first announced, but his endgame remains to be seen and I hope the writers do not take any shortcuts with his storyline, and the same goes for Ra’s al Ghul who has gone missing in action ever since winning his duel with the Arrow.
Only question for this week – where is Ray Palmer?! I hope he’s been busy tinkering with that exosuit.
We can all agree that DC has been better with their TV shows, but let’s give Marvel credit where it is due because Agent Carter has been in fine form. Unlike her successors in S.H.I.E.L.D and the two crime-fighting gangs in Central City and Star City, Peggy Carter has to rely on low-tech gadgetry to conduct her espionage missions while battling with extreme sexism in the office post-WWII. And that makes Agent Carter refreshing to watch, especially when the Marvel Cinematic Universe is becoming saturated with present-day storylines.
The evil organisation Leviathan’s plans are slowly becoming clearer in this week’s episode. Dr Ivchenko, the scientist rescued from the Black Widow training facility last week, is revealed to be a Leviathan agent after all and working with Dottie Underwood, Peggy’s next-door neighbour and trained assassin, to steal Howard Stark’s weapons stored at the S.S.R’s headquarters. The secret communication scene at the window of Chief Dooley’s office seems a bit far-fetched but given how dangerous and well-planned Leviathan is, I guess we can close an eye to that.
Peggy’s time as a double agent also came to an abrupt end as she is caught by her colleagues following a tip-off from Daniel Sousa. Honestly I did not expect the show to go this route and thought that we would continue seeing Peggy playing cat-and-mouse with the S.S.R for this season. But now that they have unknowingly brought an enemy right into the heart of their operations and treated him like an important guest, Peggy may not need to try very hard to convince her interrogators that they have been looking the wrong way all this while. Six episodes in, Howard Stark’s status as a fugitive and enemy of the state is starting to feel a bit weary and I hope the show would clear his name soon because I would very much like to see the scientist contribute to the war against Leviathan by building weapons and tech for the S.S.R without having to hide in the dark.
Edwin Jarvis’s role this week has been minor, but for good reason as he is still mending his relationship with Peggy following his employer’s dishonesty about keeping Captain America’s blood. Still, he was able to inject some humour in his few scenes with Peggy which was missed last week, and is also shown to be capable of thinking on his feet when caught in a hairy situation surrounded by S.S.R agents.
Speaking of low-tech gadgetry, Season 3 of the Cold War spy drama The Americans has gotten off to an impressive start. The premiere began with a very close encounter between undercover KGB agent Elizabeth and FBI Agent Gaad, and this week she ran into trouble once more with CIA agents attempting to box her in on the road, this time with Philip by her side. How they have managed to catch their enemies’ attention isn’t exactly explained other than the fact that their mentor Gabriel has been correct about additional security detail around the agency’s Afghan agents, but it seems likely that they would have to consider throwing away one or more of their regularly used wigs and disguises.
That harrowing 40km/h car chase (it’s safely within speed limits, I must emphasise) may have been frightening enough for Elizabeth to reconsider her plans for her daughter Paige, whom the KGB loves dearly and eagerly wants to induct into the whole family spy ring gig. Philip is even less amused by he advances of his employers, and engages his mentor Gabriel in a passive-aggressive game of Scrabble – Gabriel’s tiles form the word stygian – referring to the river Styx of the Greek underworld – while his former student replies not-so-cryptically with askew. It’s a cleverly executed scene that highlights their differences without a need for flaring of tempers. After all, Gabriel is still a very respected man and he fills in perfectly for the absent Claudia. If Margo Martindale’s character was the mother who would not hesitate to spank a naughty child, then Frank Langella seems to play the soft-hearted grandfather who would take the kids to the ice-cream van and have them sit down over Happy Meals to talk them out of their disobedience.
And for the second week running, audiences clenched their armrests and writhed in pain and disgust. Last week we had to see Philip and Elizabeth break a couple of limbs in order to fit a body into a suitcase, a scene made nausea-inducing by the very talented foley artist. The same guy definitely has to be responsible for this week’s nasty DIY dentist’s chair scene, where Philip uses his pliers to extract a broken tooth from Elizabeth’s mouth which has not healed from her fight with Agent Gaad. Well she was right not to go see a real dentist since the FBI have been waiting for one to phone them about a female patient with an impacted jaw. But that means she has to go through a lot of pain and lose an extra tooth before her husband manages to clear the wound, and the constant cracking sounds from the pliers clamped around the tooth ensure that no words are needed to describe how gruesome this is. Still, it is intimate, perhaps a little too close for comfort, and a perfect demonstration of the trust that husband and wife place in each other, in what could easily have been a typical torture scene.
On the espionage business, things are getting more interesting with Philip and Elizabeth identifying the head of the CIA Afghan group, while their counterparts at the rezidentura are attempting to obtain secrets of the US’s B-2 stealth bomber program. Meanwhile Agent Stan Beeman has been tasked with protecting a Soviet defector who is now giving televised interviews – what has Arkady planned to curb the resulting effects of anti-Soviet propaganda? Cold War history could also play an important role this season as the Soviet Union deals with the death of their leader Leonid Brezhnev. Yuri Andropov’s rule was known for the deterioration of relations with the US, and it remains to be seen how that could have an impact on both the rezidentura’s and FBI’s operations in the show.