Lunchtable TV talk: The woman’s hidden path: Transformation by need or desire

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In the same way as Crime and Punishment is ostensibly about Raskolnikov, its women are the compelling draw of that make me continue to think about the story, years after last reading it. What influence do they have, what sacrifices have they made — and why?

In many of modern television’s biggest draws, women characters embody and drive the growth, change, multidimensional development and complexity of the story, sometimes even within stories in which the men’s experience is the story. The women’s transformative journey isn’t given the same fanfare as men’s… but it’s arguably a more dramatic, if understated, journey. Not unlike everyday life.

The show that got me thinking about this transformation was Better Call Saul. We know — both from Breaking Bad and from the development of the lead, Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman — that Jimmy/Saul is going to go through professional and familial upheaval, and given what we learn about his early life, return to his “Slippin’ Jimmy” origins on a grander scale. The quieter transformation, though, happens more slowly, with Jimmy’s counterpart, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Built incrementally over the entire series, Kim’s transformation has been hinted at, as she occasionally joins Jimmy in some of his minor pranks and cons and seems to enjoy it. But her conscientious, driven, all-business demeanor imply that Kim is always going to be on the right side of the law. Yet time after time, when most would expect Kim to be the voice of reason, she retorted with something unexpected. Despite these surprises, it was never as though Kim acted completely out of character, jarring a viewer into finding the journey unrealistic or unearned. Instead she became more multilayered and complex as a character, which is not what I anticipated when the show began. In fact when Better Call Saul premiered I dismissed Kim as a secondary, possibly temporary, on/off love interest kind of character (I should really have known better, considering the creators of the show).

With Kim, as with all things in her life, she is controlling her transformation and choices, never letting the out-of-her-control circumstances make the decisions (or so it seems). Some of television’s latest and greatest shows offer glimpses of women at crossroads and turning points, as well as points of vulnerability, projecting creative and unexpected evolution for their characters. (Some of these transformations are the best — and only engaging — parts of the programs they appeared in.) A few of my picks include the transformation of Sarah Paulson‘s character, Alice, in Mrs America; Merritt Wever‘s spontaneous grab for a life that almost-was in Run; Kathryn Hahn‘s role as Eve Fletcher, as Eve moves from single mother to empty nester trying to figure out who she is, particularly sexually, in Mrs Fletcher; Shira Haas embodying a young Hasidic woman running from everything she knew to discover an entirely different kind of life in Unorthodox; almost all of the women in The Deuce experience transformation – some quite involuntarily but others, in particular, Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s Eileen/Candy, Dominique Fishback‘s Darlene, and Emily Meade‘s Lori, look to find voice and agency in a changing city in tumultuous times. Similarly, all the of the women in the underrated show Queen Sugar (Rutina Wesley, Dawn Lyen-Gardner, Tina Lifford and Bianca Lawson), have transformed completely — many times — and continue to evolve — as the show continues. It probably goes without saying but needs to be said that the women of Pose are television’s most transformative and inspiring group of all.

This is what women are uniquely good at doing — not just transforming, but adapting to changing realities. An unfortunate example from real life is Norma McCorvey, remembered best as Jane Roe, the plaintiff in the landmark case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. After the precedent-setting ruling, McCorvey became an anti-abortion activist, but nearing death, she confessed that she’d never actually changed her mind — but instead had been paid for her anti-abortion activism. This is chronicled in a new documentary called AKA Jane Roe. Sometimes the journey involves inconsistency that benefits the individual — never mind the social impact or ethical position.

As in real life, television’s transformations often come about less willingly, driven by circumstance and need. In the Canadian Pure, a Mennonite pastor and his stubborn rigidity and black-and-white view of the world continue to cause trouble and harm to his family, but his wife Anna (Alex Paxton-Beesley) adapts to the situation at hand with greater skill, being able to operate in greyer territory. Skyler White (Anna Gunn) in Breaking Bad represents a slow but sly turn to “the dark side” as it becomes clear what she is being forced to do. Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) in The Good Wife is forced to return to work after being humiliated by her husband’s infidelity and malfeasance. He goes to prison, and she begins to practice law. Somewhere along the line, her naivete and sense of being overwhelmed are supplanted by wily dealing and shrewd calculations about her future. Ozark‘s Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) follows a similar path, reviving her past as a political operative/adviser and applying it to altogether more nefarious enterprises. In many of these cases, it appears as though these ambitions have always lay dormant and get triggered unexpectedly.

 

Photo by Chandra Oh on Unsplash

Lunchtable TV Talk – Better Call Saul: ’sall good, man…

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I often wondered, as I watched Better Call Saul from its debut to its freshman season finale: Would we watch if it weren’t the prequel to Breaking Bad? Is it good or engaging outside the explicit context of Breaking Bad? We cut it some slack and keep watching because we really liked Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad. And who doesn’t like Bob Odenkirk in just about everything he has done? Giving him a leading role in a one-hour, “dark dramedy” would seem either a genius move for which we would all reap the rewards or an overblown failure. Maybe this curiosity made us want more and made us ask the question: how did Saul Goodman come to be? (I like the small nods, winks and tips of the hat to Breaking Bad that subtly appear throughout Better Call Saul.)

But as to whether I felt the show could stand on its own merits, until the end, I was not entirely sure. In the final two episodes, during which Jimmy (the given name of our titular antihero) puts together an almost airtight class action lawsuit, despite all the factors stacked against him, he ends up finding out who has really been standing in his way all along. That storytelling and slow building of a character won me over. Seeing Jimmy struggle, take care of his brother Chuck, strive to make a name for himself, continue to try to do the right thing, only to have his efforts slapped down, illustrates exactly how Jimmy cast aside an aspirationally “good” self to aspire to – and succeed – at being his “bad” self.

At the crux of this transformation is the painful and heartbreaking relationship Jimmy has with his brother, Chuck (played to perfection by Michael McKean). A bitter and probably overdue confrontation ensues, in which Chuck spews a hateful monologue about Jimmy’s incompetence and propensity to fuck up, mocking his law degree as “not real”.

Chuck explodes: “I know you. I know what you were. What you are. People don’t change. You’re ‘Slippin’ Jimmy’.” From here, Chuck delivers perhaps the most quoted and heartbreaking line of all, citing Jimmy’s conman past: “Slippin’ Jimmy I can handle just fine, but Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.”

With that, the relationship is broken, and Jimmy is never turning back. The final episode of the inaugural season begins to hint at and chart Jimmy’s new course, which will eventually lead us to the Saul Goodman he becomes.