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Category Archives: Better Call Saul
If you graphed Walter White’s transition from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to meth-dealing kingpin, there would be a few bumps here and there, but the line would mostly run straight. Breaking Bad always gave him these inciting events, these decision points, that would push him further and further toward becoming Heisenberg.
But the line that runs between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman isn’t that neat or that clear. It’s more of a series of deepening, parabolic arcs. Time and again, Jimmy stumbles close to the brink of giving in, of becoming the shyster who runs cheesy ads on daytime television and joins up with criminals. But time and again, he pulls back.
There is no show on television that threads the needle between symbolism and literalism better than Better Call Saul. A major part of the show’s success (and that of its predecessor) comes from the fact that the series works equally well as a well-told story as it does a commentary on human nature and what relationships with rough-edged individuals do to us. No character represents that balance better than Kim Wexler.
The scene with her close scrape near the Texas-New Mexico border works well as plot-focused foreshadowing. When her car gets stuck in the dirt, there is so much happening in Kim’s life — yet another tight deadline taken on to make up for Jimmy’s probable financial shortfall — that she tries to take care of the immediate problem all by herself. She find a nearby board, heaves and pushes on the car until it budges, and panics when it starts heading toward a nearby oil derrick.
Only racing into the driver’s seat and slamming on the brakes allows her to avoid a grisly wreck at the last second. The scene functions as a sign that Kim is juggling too many balls, that she’s letting small but important details slip or threaten to overwhelm her (with her car as a particular conduit for this idea) in a way that comes back to bite her later. It’s an indication Kim is trying to take on too much by herself and coming all too close to paying the price for it.
The opening of “Slip” is a little more direct than episodes of Better Call Saul usually are when filling in some gaps Jimmy’s backstory and philosophy. When Marco presses Jimmy about his parents’ shop, about how they worked hard and everyone liked them, Jimmy admits that’s true, but questions the value of it. He protests that it got them nowhere; he characterizes his own dad as a sucker, and he takes the coin his father once planned to put in the poor box for use in yet another scam.
With that, Jimmy’s perspective on life becomes a little clearer, aligning with the prior flashback to his parents’ store. Papa McGill was someone who refused to bend the rules even a little, who wouldn’t take so much as a moderately-valuable coin for himself, let alone sell cigarettes to the kids from the local religious school to make ends meet. In Jimmy’s eyes, that approach got him nowhere. It’s a little too tidy and pat to account for Jimmy’s actions in the present day, but the man himself sums it up nicely — Papa McGill wasn’t willing to “do what he had to do,” and Jimmy assuredly is.
That’s the thrust of “Slip,” which is as much of an ensemble piece as any episode of Better Call Saul so far. Not only Jimmy, but also Mike, Chuck, Kim, and Nacho, are each willing to go the extra mile, to do the difficult or painful thing, not because they wish to or because it’s easy, but because each believe it’s what they simply need to do to go on. It’s what unites these disparate individuals and their very different challenges here — each of them strains a bit more, goes a little farther, in the name of biting the bullet and doing what needs doing.
One of the best qualities of The Sopranos was how it would frequently depict a character having a small but meaningful interaction with another person, and then show how that moment could change their emotional state or plant some idea in their head that would stick with them throughout the episode. Often, the character would then take out those feelings on someone entirely removed from the original incident. It was part of the show’s deft emotional calculus, that captured the way thoughts and feelings flit around in the background of one’s mind, popping up at unexpected times or in surprising ways.
As much as the aptly titled “Expenses” is devoted to the tough financial situation Jimmy McGill finds himself in while suspended from the practice of law, it’s also devoted to that same idea — that one interaction, one exchange with another person, can reframe how you feel about someone or something, in a way that carries with you and cannot be easily erased.
There’s a sense in “Off Brand” that many of Better Call Saul’s major figures have not been doing the things they’d really like to. The demands of finances, family, and the intersection of the two have kept the likes of Jimmy, Chuck, Mike, and Nacho reluctant or bitter or scarred by the efforts each has been immersed in over the past couple seasons. But for each of them, there is now something pushing them, almost against their will, to move closer to new activities, to different lives, that might be better for their souls.
One of the ways you can tell a show is great, not just good, is if it’s engrossing even when there’s nothing particularly exciting or noteworthy happening. It’s easy to be compelled by Better Call Saul when it’s featuring McGill-on-McGill courtroom combat, or deep into a bit of Mike’s trap-setting, or when another little Breaking Bad easter egg pops up. But the mark of a great show is the ability to be just as transfixing, just as mesmerizing, with something as plain as a man having dinner with his ex-wife, each moment laden with hopes and expectations, with little happening beyond a conversation between old friends.
That flashback to a time when Jimmy and Chuck were working in concert and not against one another isn’t simply a flight of fancy to contrast their antagonism later in the episode, or a mere pleasing vignette from the early onset of Chuck’s condition. It’s a character study, a set of scenes that never say anything explicitly about Chuck McGill, but which tell the audience so much about who he is, how he reacts to obstacles and difficulties, and quietly set up the bigger fireworks at the end of the episode.
You could be forgiven for asking, “Hey, isn’t there some guy named Saul on this show?” for much of “Sabrosito.” It’s an episode that turns over most of the proceedings to Gustavo Fring and the people in his orbit, with just enough of a narrative side dish to remind you that Jimmy and Mike are the show’s main characters.
But I’m not complaining. Giancarlo Esposito has a certain presence about him that can hold your attention in a way few other actors can muster. And the events that affect him here — the cold war brewing at Don Eladio’s compound, the mutual affronts between him and Hector, the declaration of resolve from Fring to his employees — add so much shading to what we already know about the grudges and rivalries within the cartel from Breaking Bad. “Sabrosito” serves as a direct prequel to the events that Walter White would eventually become tangled up in, in a way that the rest of Better Call Saul hasn’t really. By using Gus as a conduit for that, “Sabrosito” practically guarantees a quality outing for the show.
For a split-second, I believed him. I believed Chuck McGill when he told the Assistant District Attorney that his brother had a good heart, that Jimmy would never actually hurt him, and that maybe there was an easier way to end all of this unpleasantness. I thought that maybe Jimmy’s speech to his brother, uttered while sitting on the curb waiting for the cops to pick him up, had made an impression. Chuck might have remembered all that Jimmy has done for him, understood that his brother means well, and wanted to avoid selling him down the river.
Better Call Saul is often a slower show, even by the standards of modern prestige dramas. To some degree, that is a necessary consequence of its status as a prequel. If it moves too quickly, suddenly it’s running into the series’s already known future. If it packs in too much incident, then it starts to seem all the more glaring that major events and shared histories are not mentioned or only grazed on Breaking Bad. Still, the show turns that slow burn into a feature, not a bug. It lets the events and conflicts of the series simmer while digging deep into the development of its characters and the details of their lives before things froth to a boil.
But even by Better Call Saul standards, “Witness” is a slow episode. That’s not a complaint, necessarily. Much of the proceedings center on Mike tracking down the people monitoring him, enlisting Saul in the endeavor, and there is a diligent, unhurried pace to that effort. The episode is content to play Mike’s mission out, evoking the sense of his dogged determination and the complexity and sophistication of what he’s up against.
Two devices, each meant to record, to track, so as to create leverage over another, are at the forefront of “Mabel.” Each, in their own roundabout way, needs its batteries replaced, and in both instances, that unintentionally exposes the person deploying it. Once again, two stories that seemingly have nothing to do with one another maintain such tight but unshowy thematic ties in a way that makes the two seems inextricably intertwined.
In other words, Better Call Saul is back! The opening salvo of the show’s third season offers a simple parallel that serves as a reminder of how great this series is at setting up the little things that will no doubt have much bigger echoes down the line. The two plots in this episode – one about the fallout from Jimmy revealing his malfeasance to Chuck, and the other hinging on Mike trying to figure out how a mysterious third party knew his intentions – both take things slow, letting the audience see the incremental progress of each story. But it’s immediately clear in each of them how these developments are building to a bigger reckoning.