Better Call Saul: The Superb Comedy on Display in “Cobbler”


Few shows of this caliber commit to being as funny as Better Call Saul does. The series feature scenes of a man devastated by the hurtful things his brother has said to him, but also shows that same man offering witty bon mots to friends and enemies alike. That’s in line with BCS’s predecessor, a series that could depict a hero-turned-villain demanding that a “colleague” say his name in the desert, but also show that same villain stumbling around in his underwear. And in “Cobbler,” Vince Gilligan & Co. focus on how a stray mutt is struggling to feel at ease in his new home with the big dogs, but then spend plenty of time with their protagonist artfully explaining to a pair of cops what “squat cobbler” is.

That scene, featuring Jimmy’s clever canard meant to remove the hapless Daniel, and thus Mike, from the police’s crosshairs, is chiefly, firmly, and deliberately hilarious. Sure, it moves the plot along in a dependable fashion, but it does it with comedic flair. It’s uproarious when Jimmy runs down a list of synonyms for the pie-related acts he’s describing, and it’s even better when he then handwaves the befuddlement of the cops listening to all of this by explaining that it’s “like Hellman’s mayonnaise — maybe they call it something else West of the Mississippi.”

It’s a brilliantly constructed scene that builds from Jimmy’s initial, fairly straight-laced approach with the boys and blue, to his protestations about it being a private matter which he gently describes as art, until it finally blossoms into a full-on, eminently laugh-worthy series of telescoping descriptions of this inherently ludicrous act. The mouth-agape reactions of the policeman in front of him are the icing on the cake, and Daniel bumbling around, blissfully unaware in the background, is the cherry on top.

Reactions are a big part of what makes comedy work, and this show is filled to brim with those wonderful, wordless moments. Again, there’s great comedy in the scene where an incredulous Mike has to explain to the blithe Daniel that the police don’t actually have his best interests at heart and likely have little interest in helping him find his baseball cards, based on Mike’s facial expressions alone. It’s stroke of genius to pair up the perpetually perturbed, world-weary Mike with the impossibly naive, vaguely haughty cluelessness of Daniel. The finish of “Cobbler” is a great way to tie off the loose ends of their arc and put Mike on Nacho’s radar in a season that will no doubt feature the two of them crossing paths more than once in the near future.

 

Nobody can muster a look of utter disgust like Jonathan Banks.

 

But the end of Daniel’s part of this story, and Jimmy’s involvement in it, tie into the other big story in this episode — an exploration of how working at Davis & Main, and the process of “movin’ on up,” is changing Jimmy just a bit, and yet he cannot entirely rid himself of his past predilections. Again, Jimmy has been a stray dog for a long time; it would be foolish to think he wouldn’t experience any bumps in the road as he attempts to become house trained.

“Cobbler” examines that idea through multiple lenses. The most obvious realization of it comes from Jimmy’s relationship with Kim. She plays a big part in this episode, both in how she tries to keep Jimmy grounded and remind him of who he was before he took the big job, as well as the way she reassures him in his most stressful moments and underlines what he risks by giving into his less-savory impulses.

The most obvious symbol of this is the “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” cup that Kim hands him, a chintzy bit of kitsch that works as a private joke between the two of them, and also serves a subtle reminder of the humble circumstances Jimmy came from. It’s no coincidence that he has it with him when he bids farewell to the old nail salon that he used to call home. In one of Gilligan’s trademark unique perspective shots, the mug doesn’t quite fit in the cup holder of his new, fancy company car. Again, the metaphor isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s an effective way to show that Jimmy’s old life and his new one clash to some degree, without having anyone say it directly. We continue to get the sense in this episode that Jimmy might let all of this go to his head, and that gift is a small mile marker of where he is now versus where he used to be.

But Kim is not the only person close to Jimmy who’s recognizing these changes. “Cobbler” also features the first appearance of Chuck this season, and we see several hints at his state of mind without his brother there to help him. There are repeating images of ticking time-pieces in Chuck’s scenes, from the metronome that he cannot quite keep pace with, to the close up of a ticking clock as light passes through his big empty house. Those moments convey a great deal, from the sense that Chuck is still not quite himself despite the steps he’s taken toward recovery, to the idea that without his brother there to look after him, to help establish his place in this world in relation to someone else, Chuck feels out of step.

 

"That dog from The Muppets made this look so easy."

 

Given that I completely whiffed when accounting for Chuck’s reaction in the flashback where he learns that Jimmy passed the bar (where I characterized him as a bit patronizing, but nevertheless  genuinely proud), I’m hesitant to go too far out on a limb to guess what Chuck is thinking or feeling here. That said, there’s something in his reaction to Hamlin’s report on Jimmy’s new job and the idea that one of his respected peers gave Jimmy a stamp of approval. There’s something to the way that Chuck comes to “bear witness” when Jimmy finally has a seat at the big table. And alongside those earlier scenes that seem to suggest Chuck is feeling Jimmy’s absence, it’s not difficult to think that Chuck may be, slowly but surely, coming around to the idea that his brother is, if not his equal, then at least worthy of what he’s achieved.

Sure, Chuck’s still a little condescending in the tone he takes when he tells Howard that “Jimmy always did have a way with people,” but there are hints that he’s starting to buy in. And it’s also not difficult to imagine that Chuck is missing his brother as he feels the passage of time, haunted by all those ticking clocks, and starts to realize that Jimmy was a big part of his recovery and an important person in his life whom he may have taken for granted. It’s solid, subtle work in moving one of the most interesting and unique characters from Season 1 forward.

For his part, Jimmy is initially flustered by Chuck’s arrival right in the middle of his report to those assembled in HHM’s conference room. That scene speaks to another thing that Gilligan’s shows do extremely well — build fraught anticipation. There’s moments of supreme but intimate suspense in “Cobbler,” from the Jurassic Park-riff of Mike’s coffee vibrating when Daniel’s ridiculous hummer approaches the police station, to the palpable tension in the air when Hamlin asks for everyone’s cell phones in the boardroom, effectively announcing Chuck’s arrival.

The latter scene is shot and directed impeccably, with Chuck looming in the frame as Jimmy offers his spiel from afar. But here again, Kim intervenes, putting her hand on Jimmy’s arm, a gesture that signifies the way that she’s replaced Chuck as the motivating force in Jimmy’s life. It calms Jimmy, and he’s able to go on.

 

 

"But just so you know, I'm taking your danish."

 

But at the end, as Jimmy tries to dazzle his distaff counterpart in a pastry-induced haze by recounting his “squat cobbler” routine, Kim blanches. She tells Jimmy that he’s jeopardizing his fancy new job, and seems taken aback that he would not only go so far as to fabricate evidence, but that he would risk everything he’s gained for something so foolish and so frivolous. Kim looms large in “Cobbler.” The way she tells Jimmy that “we should get a smoker” nods toward a future for the two of them, but their final scene together also plants the seeds of discord.

In “Switch.” one of the things that brought Jimmy and Kim together was their shared joy while conning Ken Wins as a team. Jimmy sees that he can have a partner, in his life and in his business, a chance he thought he’d lost when Chuck disavowed him and Kim rejected his earlier offer to work together. And yet now, when he brings up the fun of their last little adventure, Kim draws a distinction between duping a well-heeled schmoe at a bar and fabricating evidence in their roles as attorneys. It shows how the same rough-around-the-edges qualities that make Jimmy feel different and real to someone like Kim, the ones she wants him to hold onto before he gets brainwashed by his white shoe colleagues, are the same qualities that lead him to do the sorts of things that she might easily recoil from.

All of this follows from Jimmy simply recounting the tale of his custard-centered caper. That moment provokes laughs from his girlfriend and from the audience, and yet just as quickly, it pivots back to the consequences of those actions, and exposes the weight beneath the comedy. It’s a trick Better Call Saul, like its predecessor, pulls off like no other show on television. Real life is neither wholly dramatic nor a pure series of laughs. It’s both. It includes serious incidents that have undeniable humor which comes from the absurdity of life, and moments of levity with the specter of something heavier on the horizon. This show understands that, and it adds to the complexity, the strength, and the hilarity, that are Better Call Saul‘s stock-in-trade.


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