The makers of Breaking Bad liked their crazy bald heads, so it’s no surprise to find that Coyote, the latest show “from the producer of Breaking Bad”, has another under-haired but overweight hero.
What’s that I hear you say? “Walter White was shaven-headed but wasn’t overweight?” You seem to be under the misapprehension Walter White was the hero of Breaking Bad. Oh, no. No, no, no. That was surely Hank Schrader, the show’s moral core who in his final scene had the best line of all five seasons. On this, I’ll countenance no argument.
Coyote owes a lot to Breaking Bad, from its opening scene of a bunch of duped Mexican illegals in the back of a truck (remember all those?) to its flashback sequences at the start of episodes showing us pivotal moments in characters’ lives. There’s even an Aaron Paul looky-likey.
But that “from the producer of Breaking Bad” is a tad misleading – you’ll spend a long time on the IMDB website before you work out it refers to Michelle MacLaren, who was indeed executive producer of 29 episodes of Breaking Bad, and co-executive producer of another 13, but was only the executive producer of one episode and director of two episodes of Coyote.
If you really want to know what the makers of Breaking Bad are doing these days, you should be watching creator Vince Gilligan’s and series linchpin Peter Gould’s even better prequel, Better Call Saul.
But Coyote’s misleading billing is okay, because, although ultimately lacking Breaking Bad’s panache, the show has a lot going for it.
Michael Chiklis, whose corrupt cop Vic Mackey in 2002–2008 series The Shield presaged the moral haze of Breaking Bad by several years, plays Ben Clemens, a San Diego border guard newly retired after 32 years of unquestioning enforcement of US immigration laws and abruptly brought low by a combination of Mexican crime cartel intimidation and being confronted with the reality of the lives he has sought so long to keep out of both his country and his conscience.
Clemens gets caught up in, and caught out by, all this after the widow of a former partner asks him to finish building the home the partner has started across the border so she can sell it to stave off bank foreclosure. “Because a brokedown shack in a cartel town sounds like a real sound real estate investment,” as someone notes.
The show highlights the porousness of the Mexican border for those crossing officially, but the porousness doesn’t extend to Clemens’ SUV, with its door windows rolled firmly up as he drives through blasting US rock radio and barely able to utter a single word of Spanish to the Mexicans policing the other side of the border.
He treats the locals with contempt (“Why do you people always talk so fast”) and they, unsurprisingly, treat him likewise.
Of Tijuana, he opines: “They don’t have shitholes like that in America.”
Shitholes? Did that man say shitholes?
Large of girth, American First to his fingertips (“Those [border] lines were put there for a reason”), living in the shadow of that “big, beautiful wall” and its fence variants, Clemens couldn’t be more of a cypher for Donald Trump if they bunged Chiklis on a sunbed until he turned orange and then whacked an unconvincing golden mane of hair on his head.
And this is his humbling.
Beaten back and blue, hobbling, spewing, Chiklis’s is a vanity-free performance, and never more so than in the second episode, when he, and we, get to see exactly what it takes for migrants to attempt to reach and cross the US border by foot.
The episode has a touch of King Lear on the heath, with Clemens’ Fool the pregnant Salvadorian girl he’s helping escape from the loose-cannon, cartel-member father of her baby.
The girl, brilliantly played by Emy Mena, speaks little English and Clemens little Spanish, although he does recognise “gordo” when she says it of him – i.e. fat.
They speak endlessly at cross-purposes as they descend further and further into indignities, culminating in donning the clothes of a couple of desiccated corpses they come across (leaving them smelling “like one rank-ass motherfucker”, as one of the cartel members on their trail puts it).
They are, however, spared the fate of Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut (another baldie) in Better Call Saul when caught in a similar situation – no drinking of their own piss for these two. Thanks for small mercies.
Throughout their desert journey, Clemens endeavours to teach the girl the phrase she’ll need to convince the US border guards to accept her plea for asylum: “I am unable to return to Mexico because I have a well-founded fear of persecution.”
The absurdity of the bureaucratese is beautifully observed.
What with the nods to Lear and the father of the girl’s baby hunting her down being called Dante (inferno, anyone?), things don’t augur well for Clemens putting his troubles quickly behind him.
Dante’s uncle is slick, coolly calculating cartel head Juan Diego Zamora (Juan Pablo Raba), who lives in enviable bucolic splendour on a family vineyard (“We started with poppies, now we grow grapes. There is hope, Ben, don’t you think?”). It’s a step up from Breaking Bad drug-runner Gus Fring’s Los Pollos Hermanos fried-chicken franchise.
Dante’s father is the hot-headed Mazo Zamora (Daniel Edward Mora), source of the terrifying, barely contained violence-about-to-explode of one of the show’s best sequences, an extended fishing, barbecue and tequila-drinking session from hell. Useful (?) fact learned: lobsters are highly efficient for disposing of bodies?
Coyote looks amazing, whether its the opening credits’ intricate animated model of the show’s locales; the scenic splendours of the Mexican landscape (anything but a ‘shithole’); or how it films a handful of characters in a vast otherwise empty concrete stadium.
It’s inventive (if a nail gun appears in the first act of an episode, you might be forgiven for thinking it’ll be fired before the episode is over, but in fact it’s another power tool that goes off, and most satisfyingly so) and has some great lines (“Stay alert, stay alive, stay the fuck off YouTube,” advises a border patrol officer at the end of his shift briefing, a spicier offering than Hill Street Blues’ “Let’s be careful out there”).
But although there’s more going on with Coyote than with your standard procedural, there’s also less going on than you might hope.
With only six episodes to play with in its first season, it’s already heading squarely towards the formulaic, should it be renewed for a second.
Vicious beatings accompanied by glorious classical music are one cliché we could do without. A far cry from Breaking Bad’s wittily ironic use of music, such as the Bellamy Brothers’ Let Your Love Flow accompanying psycho Todd’s drive through the desert with captive Jesse.
And although the show is emphatically anti-American First, there’s nonetheless a whiff of American exceptionalism about it. After all, even if they do get to critique American life, and we do get to see them in a more rounded way than in most depictions, the Mexicans are still all either cartel members or related to cartel members. It’s hardly laying waste to stereotypes.
If it really wanted to do that, it might choose a setting other than a crime syndicate. Maybe, I don’t know, a city council. Perhaps a high school. Or a kindergarten. How about a kindergarten? Mexican Bordertown Kindy “from the producer of Breaking Bad” – who wouldn’t watch that?