“We must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.” —Mikhail Bakunin, “Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis” (1870)
It’s the moment he becomes Saul Goodman that closes the episode, but the key sequence in “Winner” is the one that shows why. Midway through the Season Four finale of Better Call Saul, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) joins his former colleagues at the Albuquerque law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill to name the recipient of a scholarship begun in his late brother’s honor. First, in a cunning montage, haughty lead partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) introduces the finalists by reciting their résumés—Model U.N., debate team, school government—only for the applicants’ voices to be left, unheard, on the cutting room floor. Then, after Jimmy’s preferred candidate, Christy Esposito (Abby Quinn), loses out on the first ballot (“that’s the shoplifter,” one board member sniffs), he pleads with his fellow voters to reconsider. Finally, he catches up with Christy in the parking lot, on the way to catch her bus. “You didn’t get it,” he says, her hopeful face falling, as he launches into the season’s—and perhaps the series’—defining monologue. “You were never gonna get it”:
They dangle these things in front of you, they tell you you’ve got a chance, but—I’m sorry, it’s a lie. Because they had already made up their mind, and they knew what they were gonna do before you walked in the door. You made a mistake, and they are never forgetting it. As far as they’re concerned, your mistake, that’s who you are, and it’s all you are. And I’m not just talking about the scholarship here. I’m talking about everything. I mean, they’ll smile at you. They’ll pat you on the head. But they are never, ever letting you in. But listen, it doesn’t matter, because you don’t need them. They’re not gonna give it to you. So what? You’re gonna take it. You’re gonna do whatever it takes, do you hear me? You are not gonna play by the rules. You’re gonna go your own way. You’re gonna do what they won’t do. You’re gonna be smart. You are gonna cut corners. And you’re gonna win.
It’s the sermon of a man familiar with being punished for his lesser sins while others profit from their greater ones, and the introduction of Saul at the end of the episode (“S’all good, man”) suggests a point of no return. Even his more optimistic notes are cloaked in resignation, give paired with take, need paired with want, as if he were a delivering an elegy for his own ambitions instead of a rallying cry for hers. Jimmy, former, current, and future con artist, one of soft heart, moral code, and a genius for persuasion, remembers in “Winner”—gesticulating with bone-deep frustration on Christy’s behalf, and also his own—that he “was a fool / playing by the rules,” as ABBA sings in the episode’s featured anthem: In the inhospitable universe of the Breaking Bad prequel, every winner is also a cheat.
Though set in the early 2000s, then, Saul’s fears and desires reflect our own, as rueful a treatment of society’s insiders and outsiders as any on television. In this, it shares its ideological DNA with many of this year’s other successes, which managed to confront the zeitgeist directly (The Good Fight) or obliquely (High Maintenance), winsomely (GLOW) or acridly (BoJack Horseman), all without leaning on ugly contrivances. That a surprising number of the titles I’m thinking of appeared on one network is, of course, a function of the vagaries of production, but it may also point the way forward in an uncertain time. At minimum, a tragicomic dispatch from the dark side of the American dream; a meditative, anti-colonial horror story; a wild, incandescently angry memoir from the ramparts of #MeToo; a blissed-out portrait of the post-recession economy; and a pair of prickly political thrillers are too singular to fit very snugly under the phrase “fine TV.” FX may have produced 2018’s best drama (The Americans), best comedy (Atlanta), and best limited series (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story), but for capturing in such brazen fashion the moment’s countercultural charge, AMC is surely the network of the year.
In fact, the network’s recent programming—with the important exception of its waning cash cow, The Walking Dead—is the opposite of “fine,” if we’re to agree that “fine” connotes both “good enough” and “painfully inoffensive”; even the most anodyne of its offerings, the underworld drama McMafia, reframes the new Cold War as a consequence of rapacious capitalism reigning unchecked for 30 years. “Why is McDonald’s more successful than Burger King?” Israeli gangster Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) asks his reluctant, Russian-descended partner in money laundering, Alex Godman (James Norton), as he prepares to “franchise” his crime syndicate across Europe. “One reason. There are more of them.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jim Gavin and Peter Ocko’s Lodge 49—one of the best new TV shows of the year—blossomed into a microcosmic examination of the Great Recession’s long reach, emphasis on the cosmic: Its fanciful treatment of the almost mystical order of the Lynx blends seamlessly with its depiction of predatory loans, looming layoffs, factory closures, redevelopment schemes, suggesting a model for rebuilding communities hollowed out by corporate greed. Lodge 49 is populated almost exclusively by the sort of decent, lovable ruffians to whom Jimmy refers when he implores the board to give Christy another chance. “My point is that maybe someone who’s been in trouble, someone who doesn’t have a perfect record… who’s made mistakes and faced the consequences,” he says, as if speaking of down-and-out surfer Sean “Dud” Dudley (Wyatt Russell), his sarcastic sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), and curmudgeonly plumbing salesman Ernie Fontaine (Brent Jennings). “Maybe she brings something the others don’t.”
Of course, swimming against the cultural current isn’t only a function of politics—it’s also an aesthetic proposition, one AMC mastered with its anthology series, The Terror, and admirably attempted with its latest adaptation of John le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl. During a year in which the color, the length, and the number of TV series, especially Netflix series, came in for acute criticism, both The Terror and The Little Drummer Girl (10 episodes and 6 episodes, respectively) sailed against the prevailing winds, ensuring that the creeping dread of an Arctic disaster and the theatrical nature of a double agent at work did more than hold us over ‘til the next episode’s autoplay.
The latter, directed by Park Chan-wook, might not muster the accelerating pace of The Americans’ final season, but as Charlie (Florence Pugh), an English actress, inveigles her way into a cadre of Palestinian and European radicals on behalf of Israeli intelligence (led by the bluff, intriguing Michael Shannon and the beautiful, boring Alexander Skarsgård), the filmmaker’s uncommon palette arrests one’s attention: From the perfect blue sea off the isle of Naxos and a honeyed, floor-length dress to a mark’s emerald jacket and a rust-orange car, The Little Drummer Girl doesn’t hide in the shadows. If anything, it gives its touchy subject matter a more thorough (and thorny) airing than most TV series, at one point bleeding between Skarsgård’s character and his Palestinian counterpart (Amir Khoury) as the latter discusses prejudices against his people: The stagecraft/tradecraft conceit that structures the series is clumsily scripted, but as a whole it succeeds in questioning, even confusing, where our sympathies lie.
For its part, The Terror is monochromatic, bleached almost to blindness by horizons of white—and yet, in part because of these (and other) constraints, the series’ first season is daring, breathtaking, unnerving, and horrifying, replicating with soaring overheads and cramped interiors the experience of being locked in ice in the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. Still, The Terror is a TV show, in that it abides by certain conventions of the medium and uses them to its advantage. For instance, the second episode, “Gore,” set 8 months into the ordeal of the British ships Terror and Erebus, follows a scouting expedition reminiscent of first contact with an alien planet, though its rhythms are resolutely out of step with the commercial-free binge: While toggling back, on occasion, to the machinations aboard ship, it establishes an eerie atmosphere, stages an unseen attack on the team’s provisions, offers an initial explanation, appears to cast it into doubt, sees the British shoot an unarmed Native man in response, and finally turns in a surprise worthy of the episode’s title, establishing in the process the human and the supernatural elements of its colonial encounter. “If you want to help, take your boats away,” the man’s daughter warns Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), with the force of a premonition. “You cannot be here.”
AMC’s admixture of political and aesthetic challenges to the status quo culminates in Dietland, whose leading promotional image is of its heroine, Plum Kettle (the extraordinary Joy Nash), lobbing a cupcake with a lit fuse as if it were a Molotov cocktail. Created by Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects, UnREAL) from Sarai Walker’s novel, it most certainly flies on and off the rails, but no one could accuse it of pulling punches; in the course of its one and only season, Plum, the fat advice-column ghostwriter for a glossy magazine’s skinny bitch chief content officer, Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Marguiles), becomes involved in both a battered women’s collective run by the heiress to a fat camp fortune (Robin Weigert) and a vigilante group that kidnaps rapists and drops them from planes. From its opening montage—purging, crimping, weighing, straightening, cutting, suffering, avenging—Dietland embraces the “intense nausea” that Plum, preparing for gastric bypass surgery, mentions in the pilot episode, in the literal and philosophical senses of the term—except that she ultimately channels the meaninglessness and absurdity Sartre describes into hallucinatory radicalism. In the face of its fundamental flaws, then (including, funnily enough, the grievously miscast Margulies), Dietland taps into the same flights of fancy as The Good Fight, then releases the emotions it generates from the strictures of law and social norms. The result, at least when it hews closest to Plum’s specific, richly imagined subjectivity, depicts uncomfortable situations and engages unanswerable questions (including a skin-crawling chubby chaser subplot that I watched, rapt, through my fingers, knowing all along how it would end) with such reckless abandon that Dietland emerges, as a vigilante explains to Plum, as “propaganda of the deed,” a combustible, revolutionary fantasy for our present crisis.
Seen by few, praised by fewer, and cancelled after a single season, Dietland, like AMC’s dramatic slate more broadly, is, on one level, representative of the structural changes that the year-in-review pieces linked above cite, and in most cases lament: One might imagine any of the series mentioned herein, in a less crowded field, becoming the subject of more sustained critical and audience discussion. As to the elusive consensus, though, to say nothing of genuine tentpole series, even the agreed-upon triumphs of the medium’s most recent Golden Age fall within a relatively narrow aesthetic and narrative band, as do those atop the Nielsen ratings. This is not to say my colleagues are wrong to be skeptical that “peak TV” is an artistic boon, particularly with the streaming wars still in their earliest stages (I certainly am). It’s not even to argue against consensus, which carries with it the allure of shared cultural experiences—even those that are not successful as an aesthetic proposition (yes, I mean Game of Thrones). It’s to suggest that consensus may not be the most apt reflection of the age we’re in, that the TV series nearest to capturing what it was like to live through 2018 were the provocations, the lacerations, the acid, ugly, upsetting ministrations on a body politic that increasingly appears acutely poisoned, and not merely sick. “It felt like an invasion, but something in me welcomed it,” Plum says of her first contact with the vigilantes in Dietland’s pilot, which ends with an email labeled “FIGHT BACK.” “You are not gonna play by the rules,” Jimmy McGill says to Christy Esposito in “Winner,” capturing much the same spirit. It may not be popular, but this defiance of the fine—the good enough, the painfully inoffensive, the status quo—is how we live now, or must. In all corners of the medium, but most especially on AMC, I discovered this year that I crave television with the same “secret rebel heart” that Plum Kettle possesses, as potent and irresistible as a cupcake grenade thrown into the heart of the system.
Dietland is now streaming on Hulu. Lodge 49 will be available on Hulu beginning January 7. The Little Drummer Girl is now streaming on AMC.com. The Terror and Season Four of Better Call Saul are available on demand through local cable providers. Special thanks to the TV critics cited in this essay: Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, Time’s Judy Berman, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, The Ringer’s Alison Herman, and Vanity Fair’s Sonya Saraiya.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.