“I get tired dating just one person,” the comments say. “How the hell do you date five women at once? You know, and keep them happy? And also work full-time, and spend two hours an evening writing?”
It’s actually pretty simple:
1. Our Physical Dates Are Few And Far Between.
If you’re dating me, at best you’ll see me every two months or so. And that’s a pretty dense schedule. Usually, it’s more like three or four times a year.
This is because currently, all my partners are long-distance – but even if you live in town, seeing The Wily Ferrett is a comparatively rare sight. As mentioned, I’m working a minimum of 10 hours a day, and usually my workweek is something like 55-60 hours when you factor in writing and exercise.
And I might travel to see you, but I’m a writer – and most of my vacation days are committed to conventions or book tours. (I’ll be doing one for the final ‘Mancer series book Fix this autumn! Mark your calendars, reserve your copies!)
So that’s one filter: If you need regular actual Ferrett, well, I am not the mustelid for you.
2. No Phone Time.
For me, phone or Skype time is like a physical date in that it’s a long block of time I reserve for you, and that’s really tricky with the work hours I’m setting already. One of my “DANGER WILL ROBINSON” signs is when a partner says, “It’s great texting and all, but I’d feel sooooo much better if we could just Skype periodically…”
It’s not wrong to ask for that, but it is wrong to ask for it from me. I fucking hate the phone anyway, generally tossing it away like a grenade whenever it rings, so that’s another filter.
3. But I Will Text You A Lot.
So do I ignore someone when we’re dating? No! I am a writer. I write at you. And generally, that consists of me texting you a couple of times a day to see how you’re doing, and sending you goofy photos of wherever I’m roaming that day, and forwarding on jokes.
I’m not with you physically, but my natural tendency when I’m with someone I love is to say howdy and share what’s going on. I’m there checking in, telling you what I’m up to, sending pictures of butterflies.
Basically, the communication flow is through texts, not phone or physical contact. And that works for me.
4. And I Will Want To See You.
One of my sweeties sent me a text the other day, saying, “Do you know how good it feels to know you WANT to be with me?”
That was the sign I was doing things okay.
The trick to dating a Ferrett is to realize that I always want to be with you – I just have a busy goddamned life, because I have a job to pay the bills and I have a career of writing I’m fanning the flames on and I have a wife, and that’s like twelve hours a day minimum. Seeing you three times a year is not my ideal situation – it’s just the reality on the ground after all the work is done. I mean, even if you were my only girlfriend, that “Let’s visit” time would still be maybe once a month. Maybe.
But I send texts because I think about you, and I wonder how you are. I do little happy-dances when I get the texts and you tell me what’s happening in your life. I mark the day on the calendar and I count down.
But a sad filter is that if you feel inadequate because text is what we have, well, that’s just what I’ve got to work on. Physical time is rare. I’ve always loathed the phone. I can do emails, but text is more immediate.
So… lots of texts.
5. And If You’re Sad, I’m There.
Emotional support’s also on the agenda here, because if you’re having a bad day I’ll be texting the shit out of you to see what I can try to do to help. If someone dumps you or you’ve got family issues, I am on call.
This should be part of the Standard Partner Package for anyone, but it often isn’t, so I found time to say it.
6. They Do Not Need To Date Public Ferrett.
One of my most frequent breakup issues is, “Someone needs me to acknowledge them in blog-space on a regular basis.” I have found, through rather painful trial and error, that the person who needs me to put “In a relationship with” on my Fet page is usually the sort of person who won’t do well with me in the long run.
The reason why is subtle: It’s not that I’m unhappy to mention the thrills of dating you when it’s an interesting post for the day. But generally, whenever someone needs to have me grabbing my bullhorn and shouting, “I AM DATING YOU!” that means they are, on some fundamental level, uncertain about the relationship we do have and needing public proclamations to feel better.
Look. If I can’t make you feel good about dating me through private methods, taking to the rafters does not help. Yes, I get a lot of attention sometimes. Yes, sometimes women flirt with me. (Sometimes they even mean it.)
But in the end, another and vital filter is understanding that “dating other people” does not mean “you are replaceable,” and if that can’t be addressed without blog-public acts of affection, then we’re not going to work out.
What you get is the real me. That has overlap, but it is substantially different from, the persona on my blog. (He’s smarter. He only gets to write about things after time has passed and he’s come to conclusions.)
So In Conclusion….
How I date five people and keep them happy is by finding the kind of partner who is genuinely happy with the kind of attention I have to offer. Which is why I have such a long-term dating process: Lots of people say they’re fine with all of this, which lasts until the NRE runs out. Then they start getting itchy, and that’s when the subtle requests for Skype dates or maybe a public post creep in.
But I think that’s all dating, really: finding someone who’s content with what you can realistically offer. And I think most dating disasters come when you try to become something that you’re not in an attempt to make someone else happy, and discover that you can’t do it.
And I think if you’re reading this and going, “God, I could never be happy like that!” then that’s awesome. I’m not trying to date someone like you. I’m trying to date someone who I mesh with, whose neuroses and needs fit with me, and that’s not you.
The question is, as it ever is, are you finding the people who mesh with what you have to offer?
I realized something weird the other day:
I am currently dating five people.
I have been dating each of those five people for more than a year.
And part of that is luck, of course; I’m a tough person to date, honestly. I work eleven hours a day, and can’t often travel to people to visit them. Machete don’t text, Ferrett don’t phone or Skype. I’ve got pretty clear emotional needs, and I’m not shy about ensuring they’re met, and yet I have panic attacks.
Every relationship I’m in right now is stable. Can’t remember a significant fight I’ve had recently – there’s been differences of opinions that needed to be resolved, and crises to work through, but an actual psychic combat situation? Not any time recently.
And I attribute that to me, well, growing the fuck up. I’ve learned that just because there’s a new attraction there doesn’t mean I have to go chasing it. I’ve learned to spend time with potential partners, sometimes as long as two years, before jumping into Relationships with them. I’ve thought about who I date, and about assembling my polyamorous Justice League. I’ve internalized the concept of the comet when it comes to dating, and recognized the value of not trying to wrestle an irregular event into constant connection.
And I don’t think a breakup is necessarily a failure mode of polyamory, because relationships are complex interactions of needs and wants mashing together, and sometimes you stop dating just because it’s not working for you. But the way in which I’ve broken up in the past has been these frantic attempts to patch things together, because I chose the wrong partner and was desperately trying to spackle together a building during an earthquake.
These days, it’s a lot smoother. And that’s a milestone for me; on our date yesterday, Gini noted that my love life used to have so much churn she couldn’t really get invested in my partners because the average swoon-time was about six months once the top was popped, but now she felt comfortable getting attached to who I dated.
That was one of the weirdest compliments I’ve ever taken, but by God I’ll take it.
So, you five, you know who you are. Part of the reason you’re with me is that you don’t need to be acknowledged by Blog-Ferrett, and are comfortable just hanging out with the insecure weasel who exists behind these words.
But I wanted to thank y’all for making me better.
I wanted to thank y’all for staying as long as you have.
Let’s hope this keeps working. And let’s hope I stay smart.
Like many people, I thought Winter Soldier was the best film in the Marvel Universe, and so the big question everyone’s asking is: Is Civil War better than Winter Soldier?
The answer: Kiiiiiinda.
Civil War has high points that are head and shoulders above Winter Soldier, but it also has some weak points that make it a little draggy. And the biggest problem with Civil War is this: while they are masterful at introducing literally fourteen likeable characters, each with their own agenda and charm, they forget to give a scene to the most critical character of all:
Now, it’s difficult because Bucky is a formerly brainwashed assassin, and part of his whole schtick is that he wants to be left alone. But a major problem in Civil War is that while literally every issue in it revolves around Bucky, if Captain America at any point had relented and said, “You know what? I’m cool if you guys take Bucky,” I would have been okay with that.
I care about Captain America. I don’t really care what happens to Bucky, mostly because Bucky barely seems to care what happens to Bucky. Even when he’s fighting for his freedom, he’s got all the concern of a man parallel parking. So Civil War is like when your best friend calls you up to say, “Man, I am so stoked to see this concert, you’re coming with me, right?” and you’re like, “Well, I don’t really give a crap about this band, but I know it’ll make my friend happy to show up, so sure.”
Now, note that the way movies work is that some people are more inherently sympathetic to certain situations than others – and so you’ll often fill in sympathies that aren’t actually outlined in the movie itself. (As witness when someone pitched me on John Wick and I said, “They shot his dog!? Shit, of course he has to kill the guy’s entire family in revenge.”) Bucky’s one of those odd characters where he’s in a sympathetic situation, so some people in the audience will feel bad for him no matter what, but beyond his situation he’s pretty much a cipher. If you saw the trailer, you’ve seen literally 50% of the characterization of Bucky beyond “Hi, I fight well and can be controlled.”
Which is, realistically, how a lot of this movie floats by. The rationale for Tony Stark – the poster boy for wandering amuck – suddenly going, “WE NEED REGULATIONS” is pretty tawdry, and realistically it depends on you understanding all the things that happened to him in Age Of Ultron. That’s right; the actual emotional weight for Tony’s turnabout was done in another picture entirely.
Actually, everyone’s rationales seem kinda sketchy. If I have one major beef with Civil War, it’s that anyone could really be on either side of this, and so “Who ends up where” seems fairly random. I mean, sure, Captain America is for freedom, but there’s also the fact that he’s a soldier and spent his life taking orders. They don’t even do something like this:
TONY: “You signed up for the army! You should be used to taking orders!”
CAP: “If I obeyed dumb orders, I’d still be doing fundraisers for War Bonds.”
Bam. But they don’t really go that far. So, like, Hawkeye’s on Cap’s side, but he could be on Tony’s side, and there’s a really blatant scene where the Scarlet Witch literally changes her mind twice in a scene. It’s not a firm Civil War.
The good news is that both sides of the Civil War have really good points. It’s not like the comic book Civil War, which was basically “TONY STARK IS AN ASSHOLE, CAP IS GREAT.” The trailer makes it seem like it’s all about Cap’s personal tie to Bucky, which at the heart it is, but there are very good political motivations to want Bucky put away and so I spent my time squirming uncomfortably because honestly, both Cap and Tony had some great points and made some asshole moves.
And lastly, the first half of the movie? It’s grim and airless. Hardly anybody’s quipping. My boss told me, “I couldn’t hear some of the dialogue because everyone in the theater was laughing,” but the trick is that they’re not laughing in the first part. And that makes this film feel a little long….
And then Spider-Man shows up.
Spider-Man is almost fucking perfect: nerdy, insecure, talking way too much, making quips, and he is by far the best thing in this movie. (Though I’m biased: Spidey’s my guy.)
And the really clever trick that this movie pulls off is letting you see how powerful these guys are. There is a pitched battle that is perhaps the most comic bookiest fight in the history of comic book movies, where everyone is in the soup and they’re all using their powers in crazy ways (hello Ant-Man!), and it’s this stunning fireworks sequence of Holy crap that happened that out-Avengers the fucking Avengers.
And Spider-Man? It’s really clear that if he had to, he could take down the Winter Soldier without breaking a sweat. Hell, he takes down Falcon and The Winter Soldier without breaking a sweat. Which is not a spoiler, because the joy of this great pitched battle you can clearly see who’s outmatched by who, but Spidey does not get to fight only the Winter Soldier, and whenever Hawkeye gets in over his head – guess what, fighting Iron Man is not your forte, dude – someone’s coming to his rescue. T’Challa is a goddamned badass who really could outfight just about anyone one-on-one, but he never gets that opportunity because it’s a flurry of heroes.
It is a beautiful scene.
And the end to Civil War, where they strip away all the superfluous heroes for very good reasons to reduce us to the old trio of Cap vs. Tony vs. Bucky, is really fucking gruelling. The payoff is perfect, because we’ve seen these heroes for years, and we know what’s going to happen the minute the plot-hammer drops, and we all want to avoid it coming, and yet it’s inevitable, and no I’m not telling you what it is because the smartness of that moment comes because it’s not the sort of thing that happens in a vacuum. It’s been set up, not just by this movie but by the consistent characterization of everyone in all the Marvel films until now, and it is emotionally painful.
Which is wonderful.
So you know, Civil War is a high-water mark of the Marvel movies. You’ve got Avengers, Civil War, Winter Soldier, and you can fight for yourself to see which is the best. (Iron Man is also a favorite, but it’s the genesis, not the climax.) You’re gonna wanna see it. It’s worth seeing.
In fact, I’m betting you’ve seen it already and have come here to weigh in in the comments, to which I say get commenting.
Got an email from someone today who asked:
“I’m four chapters deep in my first novel, and I’ve never done this before. I was wondering, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you do when a magazine, or a book publishing company doesn’t accept your work? I mean, I don’t like the idea of spamming it around either, and obviously I’m only going to submit it to companies that seem like a good fit for it, but what if I throw it out in the lake and nobody bites? Do I just set it aside and wait X months? Years? Do I go at it with a broad ax and try to make it more… palatable? Do these companies and magazines ever tell you why a work doesn’t fit with them? Since they receive so many submissions, do they just say ‘no, git gud’?”
This is a pretty common question from new writers, so here’s a big secret in the publishing industry:
You wanna know the main factor that separates Professional Authors from the never-wases?
Professional Authors learn to let rejection roll off their shoulders.
To be a writer is to be rejected. Period. There is no writer you’ve heard of who has never been rejected. They’ve all poured their hearts into a story and seen it come bouncing back, often with an insult tacked onto the end of the rejection.
You’re gonna get rejected by agents. By publishers. And even if you make it past all those hurdles, you’re going to be rejected by readers, some of whom will give you snotty one-star reviews, the vast majority of whom will not even read your book at all. Few people talk about the rejection of “The book didn’t sell,” but hoo boy do tawdry sales feel like a rejection.
Good writers keep writing.
Good writers finish their stories. No excuses. As Elizabeth Bear is so fond of saying, “It’s a draft, it can suck.” Fix it in revisions. That’s where most of the magic happens for most people anyway.
Good writers send it out, as the Viable Paradise workshop‘s motto will tell you, “‘Till hell won’t have it!” Do some minor research to ensure they’re not opposed to your story – don’t send dick stories to Fireside fiction, for example – but since you’re going to rack up all these rejections, why reject yourself?
Send them out as far as you can. Let the editors turn you down, not you.
Sadly, most of them won’t have the time to explain to you why you didn’t fit today. The irony of the publishing business is that by the time a busy editor sends you a note explaining why they didn’t like the story, you were better than 95% of the other submissions. Which is why you seek out criticism from other writers and beta readers.
But here’s what you do with critique, whether that’s from an editor or a beta reader or a bad review:
First, you figure out whether this criticism is trying to rewrite your story to something else that’s not you. Sometimes you’ll get feedback like “Do we really need a lesbian squid romance at the center?” and the whole reason you wrote this story is to explore the world of sapphic squid sexuality, and at that point someone is trying to do violence to your story by turning it into a story you’d actively dislike.
Ignore those people. Your stories are your way of fulfilling your kinks. Take that away and you’ll have a published tale that has your name on the cover and nothing of you in the story.
Everyone else who complains, well, shut up and listen. Don’t tell them what you meant to do, because the way you get better as a writer is to map out the differences between “What you meant them to feel” and “What they actually felt.” Hear where they’re confused, or angry, or bored – they’ll be bored a lot in the beginning – and try to figure out what you can do to make them feel what you want.
(And never forget the deadliest criticism: “It’s okay.” If you hear someone shrug that your story’s good, you have failed. You would by far rather have someone screaming at you How could you write that than the indistinguishable blandness of an okay, because for every person who hates something passionately there is someone who loves it with equal fervor.)
Anyway. You asked what happens when a publisher rejects your work – which is wise phrasing, because there’s no “if.” They will. Chances are really good that your first book won’t sell, whether you’re selling it to a publisher or putting it into the sea of self-published books on Amazon. Your first book will probably go nowhere. So here’s the most valuable advice, right at the end:
Maybe your first book sucks, but if you take advice and feedback and learn, your second book will be better. So write a second book. And a third. And a fourth. And – well, I’m infamous for writing seven novels before I finally got my first one published, which is a lot, but that happened because I kept writing all kinds of stuff and didn’t get caught up on any one thing.
If they rejected my first book, I’d make a second. If they rejected my second book, I’d make a third. And I’d get better with every book until someone listened.
As for you? You’ve got a voice.
Keep speaking until people hear you in the way you want to be heard.
I have a friend who’s always scheduling gang bangs.
Note the precision of that word: she spends more time scheduling them than she does having them.
Now, the popular take is that dudes are fuck-hungry horndogs who’d drop anything to get their dick wet. But in truth, finding a dude who’s willing to get erections in front of other men turns out to be pretty goddamned rare.
Some are homophobic, and worried the mere sight of a peen might poison them into gayness – let alone what happens if they brush up against one. Others aren’t sure whether they’ll be able to perform in front of other men, and God, it’s embarrassing enough to have Little Elvis take a premature curtain call in front of one woman – but a whole crowd?
Others still love the idea of gangbang sex, then get squicked when the day comes – like many fantasies, it’s better kept in the shrinkwrap, never to be opened. Still others fear showing up at a hotel room and being mugged or blackmailed.
Still others get sick at the last minute, or forgot they’d promised to take their kids to see the new Disney pic that afternoon. You know; normal scheduling difficulties.
And all that comes on top of the problems with arranging gangbangs- you need a burly friend you trust to tell the new dudes what’s allowed and how this is going to go down, and you have to find a hotel that’s okay with this, and you have to plan the condoms and lube to bring and worry about latex allergies, and, and, and….
By the time it’s all done, I know of at least three gangbangs that had at least eight dudes RSVPed, and nobody showed.
There’s a lot of empty gangbangs out there.
(Which is the other reason you bring the burly friend. If nobody shows, the burly friend is like the best man – they step in and bang the heck out of you. Which is why smart planners make sure their burly friend is good in bed.)
I’ve spent years soaked in the kink scene’s depravities – and yet these gangbang fizzles are still hysterical to me. I’d never thought of a failed gangbang, but the difference between the popular media portrayal of Fantastically Kinky Sex and the reality of it is vast.
But then I think how much of kinky sex is not kinky. I think of me, getting home from a big convention and sterilizing all my fire cups, airing out the wands, checking the alcohol levels and goddammit, I gotta stop by CVS, I’m almost out.
I think of cleaning up after a big scene, the room strewn with clothes and handcuffs and knives and floggers, and starting the cold and unsexy business of putting them away.
I think of rope aficionados endlessly washing and whipping their rope, forever piling it into coils, debating hard points strong enough to hang a person off of.
I think of all the tarps and sanitary processes that responsible kinksters use to sterilize a scene for bloodplay.
And I think, “Why should gangbangs be any different than the rest of kink?” And the answer is, they aren’t. Kink can come organically – ask anyone who’s undergone a spontaneous scene with my sharp pretty pretty princess nails – but a lot of kink is this bubble of fantastic sensation, arrived at because someone’s done a lot of work to clean off the manacles on that St. Andrews’ Cross.
And even then, there are scenes that don’t happen. Things bomb out. All the fucking time.
So much of kink fizzles because of the same ordinary reasons that other things get cancelled: flat tires. Schedule conflicts. Couldn’t find the time. And everyone’s old friend, “Not in the mood.”
A lot of kink is, weirdly, that tedium of preparation. Making sure everything is set up safely, so the proper implements are at hand and the big decisions have been made in advance.
All so when the time comes, so can you.
And the thing is, I think kink is a reflection of life: there are too many people who seek the experience without wanting to do the preparation, and that costs them. They’re so eager for the effortless high of the kink that they sneer at gruntwork, seeing it as a buzzkill – they don’t want to think about details, they want to float away on a cloud of sex.
Bad things happen to these people. They rush into hookups with careless riggers who cause permanent nerve damage with bad knots. They seek a kink partner, any partner, and they wind up alone in rooms with people who do bad things.
And the problem with chasing the high is that there’s not a perfect correlation between “Skipping the necessaries” and “Paying the consequences.” You can do a lot of unsafe fireplay before the lack of safety precautions finally sets someone’s hair aflame. It looks like you can skip the boring stuff to head straight to the excitement, but…
Eventually you discover the quick excitement has a much greater cost.
Smart kinksters understand that the preparation and the enjoyment are two halves of the same whole – you build a solid foundation to leap from safely. They don’t feel cheated when they spend hours on tedious busywork, because the busywork is not a betrayal of the experience, but a fundamental part of it.
They understand that life is not meant to be a series of exultant explosions, but rather that a good life is finding ways to be fulfilled by the necessary preparations.
So when you walk by some phenomenal rope scene with beautiful people hung from the rafters and spun like Cirque de Soleil performers, you might think that oh my God, that is what I aspire to be. And maybe you should.
But remember the work that goes into gangbangs. Realize that rope scene involved years of practice and safety checks and scheduling to coalesce into this transitory beauty that never lasts as long as the run-up. Recognize how the life-changing experiences are always a little harder to come by than you’d think they should be.
Remember that this effort is not a betrayal of what life should be, but rather a reflection of how life truly is, and be enlightened.
“You used to enjoy having sex with me,” someone says. “Now you’re seeing your new partner all the time, and we haven’t had sex in a month, and I really need a cuddle date. Can we schedule that?”
At which point CAPTAIN ANARCHY leaps out of the closet like a ninja referee to pass judgment on your relationship: “FOUL! FLAGRANT JEALOUSY! TWO POINTS, PLUS THE IMPLICATION THAT MAYBE YOU’RE NOT CUT OUT TO BE POLY!”
Then Captain Anarchy disappears, leaving behind a bunch of snide leaflets on why No True Relationship Feels Jealous.
But that’s not jealousy. That’s “You are no longer doing a thing that used to make me happy, and I would like to open negotiations as to whether I can get that happy experience back.”
You’re not asking because you’re resentful of this new love – you’re asking because you’re no longer getting all the things you require to be satisfied in a relationship. The new lover is the root cause in this instance, but you don’t have to be jealous of them any more than you have to be “jealous” of someone putting in too many hours volunteering for Burning Man or “jealous” of a 70-hour-a-week work schedule.
You do not have to personally loathe everything that’s getting in the way of getting your needs met to say, “Hey, would it be okay if we did this?”
And what Captain Anarchy is trying to do is this spectacularly toxic assholery that tries to shame people into silence for things that should be healthy to ask for.
Look. Relationship Anarchy is a valid approach. But what it does not mean is that you should be a quivering snail, never requesting anything of someone you’re dating, passively accepting whatever some douche of a date chooses to dole out to you.
Because communication is complex! Sometimes the people you’re dating don’t know that doing more of this thing would make you happy, and they’d be thrilled to do more of it! Sometimes your lovers get distracted, and are happy to be refocused!
Never opening up a discussion on What You Need is not a fucking strength. It is a weakness. It presumes your partners have a secret telepathy that tunes them into a full knowledge of what thrills you, and it passes on the toxic idea that actively requesting things that make you happy is somehow a downer to other people.
No. What’s a downer is getting too attached to the answer. It hurts getting an an honest response of “You know, I’m no longer into you sexually, maybe it’s time to move on” – but it saves time. It means you don’t spend months reserving emotional space for someone, hoping wanly that maaaaybe this NRE will wear off and they’ll get back to you. And it means maybe you get an answer of “I don’t want to pull back on this relationship right now, because this is the way I operate, but past history shows I’ll probably return to our old pattern after another month or two – at least until I find someone else.”
It’s fine for them to say that. It’s fine for you to say “yes” or “no” to that pattern. But none of that happens unless you’re willing to open up a discussion without some idiot drive-bying to say “JEALOUSY IS BAAAAADDDDDDD.”
Look. There is jealousy out there, in the sense of “They are taking you away from me and I deserve you.” And that is bad.
But there’s also, “I used to get this thing that made me excited about being in this relationship with you, and I no longer get that.” And in that case, bringing it up isn’t “jealousy” so much as it is saying “I’m with you because you provide certain experiences, and if those experiences are no longer going to be a part of what happens between us, I deserve to know what’s going on so I can make sane decisions as to whether to stay involved with you.”
And sometimes, those experiences are no longer provided to you because this person has decided to give them to another person. Sometimes that can be rectified by saying, “Hey, you know, I miss that.” Sometimes it can’t.
But generally, I find the people who are most enthusiastic about suppressing discussion of What Makes You Happy are trying to quash this discussion because they don’t care what makes you happy. They care about what makes them happy, and when you bring your tiresome ol’ self into the discussion then you’re bringing them down, and why can’t you just shut up and let me do what I want?
To which I’ll go to one of the other definitions of jealousy: “fiercely vigilant of one’s rights.” That kind of jealousy, I can get behind. And one of your rights in a relationship should be to have the information you need to make informed decisions about what you’re willing to do within a relationship.
Anyone who tells you otherwise, well… they’re probably hoping nobody knows too much about what they actually provide.
Better Call Saul features two immortal men who can never die. For the entirety of Better Call Saul’s existence, Slippin’ Jimmy and Mike are completely immune from physical trauma, because we’ve seen them in Breaking Bad and they’re okay.
The show knows that is a prequel, and more importantly, it knows that you know it’s a prequel. The show has Mike walking into a room full of angry gangsters with guns, and he is wary – but the show, wisely, does not try to fill it with the tension of ZOMG WILL HITMAN MIKE SURVIVE, because we know he will. Likewise, Slippin’ Jimmy is currently embroiled in legal battles, and millions are on the line, but his opponents are largely noble men who battle it out in courtrooms. He’s not going to get shanked over an old-age home dispute.
And yet Better Call Saul is one of the tensest shows I have watched.
If you’re a writer, watching Better Call Saul highlights how fucking lazy “death” is as a threat. What Better Call Saul is about is excruciating compromise – playing on the tension between the man Jimmy wants to be and what he wants now. He wants to be a good lawyer because he admires his brother – but dammit, the straight and narrow path has not worked out for him.
So Better Call Saul is a master class in subtle pressures. There is no reward for Jimmy if he follows all the rules – so he bends the rules a little, just to make way, and it gets him a better job as the kind of noble lawyer he wants to be. But then one of three things happens:
- One of his past foibles requires him to do something even scummier to get himself out of it, or:
- Something good and wonderful and beautiful he’s gained by these small compromises is endangered, and the only way he can solve it is by falling back on the huckster Slippin’ Jimmy thing that he is so good at, or:
- He does something noble, and loses ground.
That’s pretty much the plan, from a writer’s perspective. But that tight focus really keeps Jimmy where it hurts emotionally. Everything he gains, he’s gained because he’s born to be a slimy, double-crossing cheat. Everything he loses, he loses because he has not been slimy enough.
What’s holding him back is his morality, and the show is about watching Jimmy desperately try to hold onto that human streak – to not betray the people he’s loved, even as they betray him.
And that’s what I find more compelling about Better Call Saul than Breaking Bad – Jimmy is redeemable. Breaking Bad made the very wise decision early on in Season One to give Walter an out, and watch Walter throw it aside because dammit, Walter prioritized “Feeling potent” over “Fixing the actual problems.” Jimmy, though…
Better Call Saul is a complete train wreck, because you’re watching two brothers actually make each other into what they’re accusing them to be. Jimmy does have a tendency to fall back on his con-man habits, but his brother’s relentless anger just forces him to be slimier. Chuck wasn’t out to get Jimmy, but thanks to Jimmy’s anger he sure is now. And if Jimmy just stopped trying to impress Kim, or Kim cared less for Jimmy, then Jimmy might not keep going to such radical lengths to “protect” her, but…
This is an entirely avoidable outcome. Take one of these factors away and Jimmy might not become Saul Goodman, late night TV huckster, as he is predestined to become. Yet what’s driving them is not fate but people who are each battling the tension between who they want to be and what they need now – and the show is relentless at showing them who they actually are when the lights go down.
And all of that is without a death. (Well, not on Mike’s blood-soaked rampages, but it’s as if the show’s all but admitted there’s not much for Mike to do now.) Too many shows raise the stakes by reaching for the literal jugular – which is easy. Some asshole can always come crashing through a door with a gun, and you apply pressure externally because if these characters aren’t saved, they’ll die!
But that’s so easy.
What’s hard here is watching all the characters in Better Call Saul choose to become the people they didn’t want to be. The violence is purely psychological as they realize that what they’re getting isn’t nice and who they’re becoming isn’t nice and what’s holding them back are those thin scraps of loyalty and decency – and yet they know, every last one, that those scraps mean something and they’re going to be truly damned if they just let them go.
They’re circling the drain. They won’t die – no, not until their eyes have been truly opened. They make choices that cost them something every time.
And that’s so much harder to write than some asshole with a knife.
Yet so much more satisfying.