Author: Kevin

Review: Red Shirts by John Scalzi

At first, I liked Red Shirts, by John Scalzi (Old Man’s War,The Collapsing Empire and the second book ofThe Interdependency series, The Consuming Fire). I love Scalzi’s writing. His space-action is absolutely riveting, the plots have just the right amount of complexity and twists, and he’s funny as hell.

So, I liked Red Shirts, until about a third of the way in, when things change quite a bit, and not everything (and everyone) are exactly what they seem to be. I lost interest.

Then, needing something handy to read, I see it still in my library, and I dipped back into it, and freaking loved it. It was a very strange experience. I liked the book until I didn’t, but then returned to it and as I finished it, realized that I had just finished reading one of my top 10 favorite sci-fi books ever.

Yes, EVER. And I read a lot.

Red Shirts hits on so many cylinders, I feel like I bought a 4-banger Toyota Somethingorother, and driving it off the lot, discovered it’s a 12 cylinder Mercedes AMG luxury machine.

Unfortunately, discussing everything that makes the book so great would require me to spoil it a bit, so I won’t. Probably just as well, since I’d start running at the mouth and not stop until I’d rolled past 40K words, and that would just be sad. I’m a writer too, behind on a couple projects, and generating that many words for a blog that makes me no money at all, would be…unfortunate.

Suffice it to say that if you are a sci-fi fan, you will love Red Shirts in at least two different ways. Yes, early on, Trek fans will think, either hey, you’ve ripped off Roddenberry, or will be suspicious about it. That’s good. Go with that.

Audible listeners will perhaps, be a little misguided by Wil Wheaton’s narration. His performance, as in The Interdependency Series books, is perfect, but the “red shirt” thing, being read by Wesley, may spin you a bit.

Again, go with it.

I liked Red Shirts until I didn’t, but then loved it tremendously. This is a must-read, and to really enjoy it, a must-listen.

17 stars out of 5!

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Better Call Saul – Season 2, Episode 5 Breakdown


Once again, Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and their band of brilliant and creative Albuquerqians have masterfully placed another priceless jewel into the mosaic that is the Breaking Bad Universe, known henceforth as the BBU.

Better Call Saul (BCS), is far from simply the backstory of how Irish Chicago native Jimmy McGill became the ABQ’s drug dealer’s best friend and GOOJCCINCF (get out of jail card cheaply, if not completely free) and criminal rabbi, Saul Goodman. Each week that passes, shows how in fact, Jimmy/Saul (I’m hoping the name change happens at the earliest in Season 2’s finale, if not sometime in Season 3, or hell, Season 4. Those who were surprised that McGill wasn’t shown walking out of his urologist’s office (or whoever does circumcisions on adult males) by the end of Season 1 simply didn’t get the point. BCS isn’t just the story of how Saul got his name, it’s the origin story for Breaking Bad.

I know, I know, there are those out there who subscribe to the theory that in fact, Breaking Bad is the prequel to The Walking Dead, as explained here. Whether or not their lovably twisted minds are correct, after only 16 episodes of this television masterpiece, I don’t think it’s putting too fine a point on it, saying BCS isn’t the prequel to BB, but rather, BB is the sequel to BCS. No disrespect to the finest television show ever produced intended.

Okay, enough gushing and praise. Let’s break it down.

SPOILERS FOLLOW – If you haven’t watched every episode of both shows (and the entire run of BB at least TWICE), what the HELL are you doing here? Close the browser window, wipe your browsing history and go back to your iPad version of Wired (the March issue is just out), Buzzfeed or Godlike Productions. The spoilers below will quite possibly ruin your enjoyment of both shows.

S1E5 has Kim Wexler who just lose weight with the help of her physician, Dr. Matthew Galumbeck, serving her time (and possibly waiting for execution) in the Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill dungeon, otherwise known as “Doc Review,” where her considerable legal expertise is spent going over page after page of billing reports, ensuring investors in Newell Rubbermaid, the company who makes the Sharpie highlighter, don’t have to rely on just Social Security to make their monthly payments to the Sandpiper Crossings of the world when they retire. We’re, of course, thinking Chuck McGill put her there, because in the Season 1 finale, we learned Jimmy’s older brother was the dick after all, and Howard Hamlin a good guy. Okay, reevaluate. Not so cut and dry.

Ep4 told the story of Mike’s run in with the fists of Tuco Salamanca, the psycho who would later kidnap Walt and Jesse, spiriting them off to the shack in the badlands, where we first heard Tio Salamanca’s bell and experienced his voiceless fury. In Ep5, we see Mike healing, and realize the at this point, grill-less drug thug’s appearance in Season 1 and now Season 2, aren’t just heart-warming cameos. Tuco’s relationship with Mike is an important lynchpin in the Breaking Bad mythology, as well as an ironic take on the one piece of advice Walter White took from Mike. More on that later.

Jimmy is guilt-ridden because Kim has taken the heat for his going off the reservation and running the TV ad he produced to gather more litigants for the Sandpiper Crossing case. Absolutely unfair, because Kim is truly blameless. Her responsibility for not telling Howard that Jimmy had produced and aired the commercial (quite tasteful, especially considering the TV ads Saul Goodman would run in the coming years and available on the web, here), so HHM’s Senior -Asshat- Partner could make points by tipping off Davis & Mane’s guitar-playing Senior -Asshat- Partner is sketchy at best, especially for lawyers who work so hard to stay so firmly planted in ethical territory.

So, Kim is up to her neck in highlighter yellow and Jimmy has two strikes on him at D&M and has picked up a babysitter, watching every breath he takes, every move he makes, and every Beanie Baby he tries to find a new mommy for. Jimmy, whose brother Chuck rightly tells Kim, has a “big heart,” doesn’t care about himself. He’s worried about Kim, and suggests she sue HH&M. He’s even drafted the initial suit, and delivers it to her in the bowels of Castle Asshat. Kim’s reply is that suing her boss might work, but who would hire her? Filing suit would be committing career suicide.

Kim’s solution, which has an interesting parallel to Mike Ehrmantraut’s handling of Nacho’s Tuco problem, is to put the lawsuit away, and dig herself out of the doghouse the hard way, by bringing in a new whale of a client, and we see her on her cellphone, using up cases of post-it notes, mining contacts, but only finding men who want to date her. Back in the dungeon, she takes another look at the lawsuit, but doing so only motivates her to work the cell harder (I don’t remember 2002 mobile phones having such a long battery life, not to mention unlimited minutes plans were hard to come by), until success finds our girl, in the form of a BIG new, bank client, whose legal issues, according not to Chuck, promise HH&M “months, if not years” of work.

Mission accomplished, what follows is a perfect meeting with the new client and Doc Review is a soon-to-be distant memory, right?

Wrong. After waving good-bye to their new whale, Kim suggests some first steps in servicing the client, Howard coldly replies, not even looking her in the eye as he walked back into the building that she was way too busy in Doc Review to worry about something as trivial as her new $250,000 a year client.

Ouch. This guy holds a grudge, doesn’t he? If you’re keeping score, looks like Howard is the dick again.

Meanwhile, Mike is having his own troubles with someone who doesn’t forgive. While having a leisurely breakfast (in the same diner, by the way, that Jimmy courted his first clients as a freshly minted lawyer, AND where Hank Schrader begged Skyler to turn herself over to the DEA in order to save herself from Walt in BB), an out of focus figure strides in and invites himself to sit down. As the camera comes around to reveal the man’s identity, I have to say, I was once again blinded by the brilliance of Gilligan and his writers.

It was Tio Salamanca, not yet consigned to a wheelchair, relying on a bell and a one letter at a time alphabet grid to communicate. Tio’s nephew Tuco, had been masterfully baited by Mike, in order to send him to jail, giving his partner, Nacho, free control of the cartel’s meth business. For this, Mike had been paid 25 large, half of what Nacho had wanted to pay the former cop (and apparently, a Vietnam Vet sniper, which we learn after a scene with BB’s favorite motel gun dealer) $50K to kill Tuco. Either haunted by all those he had killed in the past, or thinking a hit was more than required (trying really hard not to use the term “overkill”), Mike makes a decision that he learns will haunt him even more than killing Tuco would have. Tio is offering Television’s all-time greatest bad-ass a grand total of $5,000 to tell the cops that it wasn’t Tuco’s gun on the ground in the parking lot of the Mexican restaurant where the younger hothead had committed a brutal beat down of our hero, but instead Mike’s. This would cancel out the weapons charge, leaving just battery as Tuco’s crime. Far less time in prison. Mike pointed out that he would then be on the line for a gun charge, but Tio reminded him he was a retired cop, and the police would certainly go easy on him.

Before Tio presented his plan, he apologized to Mike for his nephew’s behavior, oh behalf of his entire family. Tio knew that even if the ex-cop hadn’t already sussed out Tuco’s connections, the apology would certainly make them clear.

As Tio gets up from the table and walks out of the diner, leaving a couple big bills to cover the check, the camera stays on Mike, who takes a sip of coffee, and raises his clenched fists just above the table, which is probably the most agitation we’ve ever seen from the perfectly calm, cool and collected Mr. Ehrmantraut’s. It’s as close as we ever get to the superb beyond words Jonathan Banks chewing scenery. Calm down there cowboy! That Banks could communicate such frustration and rage in such a subtle gesture is a testament to his acting skills. The man is a master.

In the Season 3 finale of Breaking Bad, titled “No Half Measures,” Mike explains the importance of never settling for halfway, when you should be permanently solving a problem. He tells the story of his own education about the concept, recalling how, when he had a wife-beating scumbag on his knees in a field, his service weapon pointed at the man’s head, he settled for the half-measure of letting the guy off with the warning to never touch his wife again, under penalty of death. Two weeks later, the guy killed the poor woman, Mike tells Walt, teaching him to never settle for half measures. I understand why this particular situation would not have made a good example in the teachable moment with Walt, but now I’m sure this little drama was on Mike’s mind during the conversation with Walt six or seven years in the BB future. It was no coincidence that the bounty Nacho paid Mike for letting Tuco mess up the pretty Ehrmantraut face was half that he offered for putting a bullet in the craziest branch of the Salamanca family tree. Sitting across the diner table from Tio, Mike had to be thinking “no half measures, ever again.”

Now, you’re probably wondering “Okay, what’s with the episode title, Rebecca?” Actually, it partially explains the question raised in Ep 3, Cobbler. Remember the beginning of the episode, where Chuck is playing the piano. The older McGill brother is frustrated that, even though his skills are almost as mad as Skinny Pete’s, who, in an ep of BB, is hired by Jesse to buy transport cases for meth lab equipment, in the process show’s he’s a talented keyboardist. Back in BCS, the piece Chuck is playing is an accompaniment for a violinist, whose name, “Rebecca,” is on the sheet music.

The opening of Ep5 is flashback, shot in black and white, and shows Chuck and his wife, Rebecca, happily married, electric lights and appliances working, with no apparent physical effects on Chuck. It’s a warm and comfortable domestic scene, the pair preparing dinner, expecting a guest who turns out to be none other than Jimmy, freshly arrived in the ABQ and having just completed his first week of office boy employment at Hamilton, Hmlin and McGill. It’s clearly pre-breakdown for Chuck, since there’s not an aluminum blanket anywhere to be seen.

The scene shows that Chuck’s lack of faith in Jimmy is nothing new. He preps Rebecca for meeting his younger, ne’er do well brother, going so far as to establish a code gesture Rebecca is to use to let Chuck know she’s had enough of the younger McGill, a tug of her ear that tells Chuck to “get this clown out of our home.” In reality, Rebecca is quite taken by Jimmy, laughing at his jokes, clearly considering him a breath of fresh air in an otherwise rather stuffy existence, something Chuck just can’t stand.

This theme echoes later, in the present day, when Chuck attempts to give Kim some insight into his brother’s character. It was a sad moment, watching Chuck stab Jimmy in the back with the woman the younger McGill clearly loves and cares deeply for. Chuck tells her a tale of Jimmy pilfering $14,000 from their father’s small business, implying that the theft ultimately caused their father to go broke, destroying his spirit to the point of causing their beloved father’s demise not long after losing his business. After somehow finding a couple square inches of Jimmy’s back he hasn’t already plunged a sharp instrument into, Chuck lets Kim out of the “doghouse” and welcomes her back to the adult lawyer table. Kim’s expression is unreadable, and at this point, we can’t be sure if she thinks Chuck is a complete, asshole, or believes she’s learned the Ruth about Jimmy. Perhaps both is her conclusion. Since Kim Wexler is nowhere to be seen or heard in BB, something comes between the two young lovers, causing them to part, so I know we’ll eventually figure it out.

I don’t believe it’s the last we’ll hear about the $14K. My gut tells me that when the truth of the story comes out, the pilferage will ultimately land at the feet of the oldest McGill son. Something like Jimmy swiped the money to pay Chuck’s tuition, or something like that. Of the two, Chuck is the most deeply flawed, his weird problem with electricity aside, HH&M’s Senior Partner is a messed up dude. Believe me, Jimmy will turn out to be the well-balanced one.

I admit that for a short time, I thought Kim was in BB, in the form of Saul’s long-suffering receptionist, Francesca. I considered the possibility that Kim loses her license to practice law, depression puts 50 pounds on her and instills in her a dejected, world-weary outlook on life, having to answer Saul’s phone and look at his lowlife clients all day. I no longer believe that’s the case, however. Whatever causes the split between Kim and Jimmy will be profound and permanent. I know, however, that I’ll be hoping, at some point, a beautiful blonde lady will find herself in Omaha, craving a Cinnebon fix.

We all have our dreams.

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The Bastard Executioner: Season Finale

The Bastard ExecutionerI’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Kurt Sutter is a sick and twisted GENIUS

What he has done with the first season of The Bastard Executioner is truly amazing, and as is his modus operandi, completely unexpected and wonderfully against the grain. Television has developed such deep and predictable grains, it’s hard to watch more than a few minutes of a new pilot and not be able to completely project the arc of the show.

SPOILERS If you haven’t watched the entire first season of the show, do not continue, unless you want to know how it develops, and are satisfied watching how it’s done. Truthfully, as crazy-good as the twists and turns are, TBE is a masterclass in state-of-the-art storytelling. I can’t think of another show that has been structured like this one, and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to state that it has set a new standard.

Okay, that much done, here’s the scoop.

There is an established formula to producing the standard movie or series. The vast majority of commercial movies and series use this formula, because it’s so ingrained in the viewers mind (whether we know it or not) that to deviate creates discomfort. Sometimes that discomfort can be good, but for the most part, producers aren’t interested in risking their millions, so they go for the comfort.

The Formula

Elements: Protagonist (main character), Antagonist (bad guy), Relationship character (the sidekick or mentor who knows something the Protagonist needs to know, and is there to help). The Theme is what the Protagonist is supposed to learn.

First 10-15% of the script: “Normal life” is shown, all is well, and we are shown a baseline of the world of the story.

At the 10-15% mark: The Protagonist faces a decision, based on events that may or may not be in his or her control. How the events are reacted to determines whether or not there is a story.

At the 25% mark: The second act begins. Problems begin piling on and things get more and more dangerous and chaotic. The questions that are being raised begin to be answered at the 50% mark.

75%: This is generally the lowest point for the protagonist, where he is as far away from his goal as he ever will be. He then confronts the antagonist (the bad guy – or good guy in the case of a story with an anti-hero), fixes things up with the relationship character, they tie up loose ends, and ride off into the sunset.

That’s the nuts and bolts of how a movie is written. You can find out more by reading about The Hero’s Journey, the Three Act Structure, or read a great book called Save the Cat.

Aside from the basic screenwriting formulas, most shows start with a stable world that steadily becomes chaotic, sometimes returning to balance, sometimes not. Consider Sutter’s previous show, Sons of Anarchy, where a motorcycle club was comfortably integrated into the community of Charming, California, everyone pretty much knew their place, and things worked as they were supposed to.

Over the next several seasons, this all came unravelled. People lied, died and were murdered. The bonds of the club and community were tested, and while some held, many didn’t, inviting chaos to take root, and then overwhelm the show’s world to a point where nothing but the self-sacrifice of the Protagonist can even begin to banish that chaos. Of course, in the aftermath of the tragedies that began to arrive at a dizzying pace, nothing remotely like the baseline SOA started with can ever be achieved, the best the survivors can hope for is a quieter time to attempt to heal their wounds.

Sons of Anarchy fans who were expecting this kind of storytelling from The Bastard Executioner were in for a surprise, but it was the way show runner Sutter pulled it off that demonstrated his true mastery. From the start, TBE looked like it was following the formula. Baseline, Protagonist, Antagonist, Relationship, Theme.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. In the last two episodes of first season, we learn that even though we knew Wilkin Brattle was not who he pretended to be, he was someone even he didn’t know he was, Katey Sagal’s “Annora or the Alders” son. The beauty of that reveal, is that many attentive fans had figured that out, and they felt good about themselves, right? Well…They hadn’t figured out that Wilkin is a descendent of Jesus Christ, had they? Come on, there were hints dropped all along the trail. A mystic woman traveling with a Knight Templar as her bodyguard? The subtle reveals about Gnosticism? Sure, I didn’t consider the possibility before the truth was revealed through dialogue between Annora and Wilkin, but it didn’t completely come out of left field, either. Sutter, Paris Barclay and their crew are way too good to pull something like that. Every reveal was legitimate. No deus ex machina here.

It’s easy to break things, and much harder to put them together, especially when it’s clear all the parts aren’t from the same whole. In the last half of the ten episode first season of The Bastard Executioner, Kurt Sutter and his incredible group of writers and directors, managed to start with chaos, and construct a solid world that will form the baseline of the next several seasons. Honestly, I haven’t seen that before. People who were in conflict with the established heroes of the story, and seemed patently evil, were shown to be honorable, good and true. This was partly shown through the interactions of the characters, and partly through comparing them to the greater outside world.

I’d like to somehow compare this show to Sons of Anarchy, but I can’t. It’s a different show. Both brilliant, but intrinsically different. I think many show runners clearly draw their shows from the same well, going back time after time until the well is dry. Others may draw from the same well, adding a different flavor of Crystal Light to each bucket to make it seem like a different drink, and quite frankly, most viewers fall for that. But in creating his new series, Kurt Sutter has not only drawn from a different well, I’m not sure he’s even serving up the same liquid, but then I tend to overextend metaphors. You know what I’m saying, right? TBE is a completely different story, told in a much different way.

I take that back. There is a thread that connects TBE and SOA, and that’s Kurt Sutter playing a role that is tortured, long-suffering and ultimately self-sacrificial. “Big Otto” Delaney sacrificed himself in the next to last season of SOA, but his Dark Mute, who we learned was a Knight Templar, dramatically self-sacrificed in the season finale, to considerable martial effect, you might say.

The Bastard Executioner – 11 out of 10 stars! Well done, Mr. Sutter.