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Category Archives: Better Call Saul
Sometimes you have to cross a line. Sometimes you do everything right; you do everything exactly the way you think it ought to be done, and despite all that, you still lose. Your discipline, your good deeds, your extra effort to do the right thing even when it isn’t necessarily easy, only enabled the bad guys, only let them profit from their bad behavior. So you have to make compromises. You have to break some of those same rules. You have to sully yourself by playing their game. You have to be like the bad guys to beat the bad guys, for the greater good.
These are the thoughts that motivate Mike Ehrmantraut as he wraps his hands around the rifle he’d previously shied away from. But they’re the same thoughts going through Chuck McGill’s head as he tricks his brother into incriminating himself on tape.
I’ve heard gripes from some people who like Better Call Saul, but think that it can sometimes feel like two different shows hot-glued together. There’s something to the thought. Season 2 has featured one storyline focused on Jimmy’s trials and travails with Kim and Chuck as he struggles to fit into his new surroundings, and another centered on Mike getting mixed up with Salamancas. While the leads of those stories may bump into one another from time to time, there’s not a strong plot-based connection between the two arcs.
Despite that, in episodes like “Nailed,” there’s a strong thematic connection between them that helps to solidify Better Call Saul as one unified show. In the episode, both Jimmy and Mike have pulled a con of sorts, in the hopes of protecting someone they care about, in a way that also directly benefits them. Jimmy’s adventures at the copy center in “Fifi” leads to Kim winning Mesa Verde back as a client, but it also helps ensure that Jimmy doesn’t have to carry her half of their shared expenses. By the same token, Mike’s makeshift road hazard is intended to draw the cops’ attention to Hector Salamanca, thus keeping him too otherwise occupied to threaten Mike’s family again, but it also leads to Mike pocketing a nice quarter-mil for his troubles.
Better Call Saul, like its forebear, is full of impressive, creative sequences. Whether it’s last week’s inflatable-man montage, or Kim’s cold-calling routine in “Rebecca”, or the breadstick snaps that convey Jimmy’s unease after his run-in with Tuco, the show isn’t shy about using the various tricks in its visual toolbox to propel the show’s narrative forward. “Fifi” offers two of these sequences, and the two serve distinct, but no less important, purposes.
What I love about Better Call Saul are the little things, the subtle touches that communicate something powerful about who a character is or what they’re thinking in a clear but artful way. When Jimmy returns to his nail salon beginnings and goes to record his voicemail, he starts off with his faux-British secretary routine. Then he stops and tries it again in his regular speaking voice, not as James M. McGill Esquire, but as Jimmy McGill, attorney at law. It’s a small distinction, but a big difference, and that’s the quiet ethos of the show on display in “Inflatable”.
From the moment he received it, the “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” mug has been a symbol of the way that Jimmy doesn’t really fit with his new surroundings. “Bali Ha’i” doubles down on that symbolism throughout the episode, showing the several ways that the nascent Saul Goodman is a square peg who does not quite belong in the round hole that he now finds himself in.
That’s the major takeaway from the episode’s funny and creative cold open, which features Jimmy fighting insomnia in his generic corporate apartment. He takes the odd wicker balls that seem to be the default decoration in any upper-middle class setting, and turns those bland accent pieces into pure fun and games, whether it be an impromptu bit of hallway soccer or a spate of trick shot basketball. In a moment of resignation, Jimmy turns to late night television to soothe him to sleep, only to find that Davis & Main has adopted his idea to use commercials in order to reach potential Sandpiper clients, but they went with the standard bland production in lieu of his attention-grabbing spot. Eventually, Jimmy is left with no choice but to return to his hovel at the old salon. He clears out enough room for his fold out couch, and is finally at home, at peace, and able to get some sleep.
The broader implications are clear. Try as he might, a man as colorful as Jimmy doesn’t fit into the antiseptic world he’s stumbled into, with the generic living space, the anodyne commercial, and the slick corporate car that doesn’t quite accommodate his oversized novelty coffee mug. So when, at the end of the episode, he pulls out a tire iron and bashes in the cup holder until there’s enough space to hold his beverage container of choice, it’s not just a scene of day-to-day frustration; it’s a quiet act of rebellion that speaks to the ways in which Jimmy is growing ever-weary of the space he inhabits.
Jimmy doesn’t have a bad heart. He never really means to hurt anyone. It’s just how he is. It’s in his nature. He takes advantage of people. Time and again, he leaves the folks that he claims to care about holding the bag. It may come in dribs and drabs, and it may be infused with that old McGill charm, but it’s what he does.
That’s how Chuck sees his brother, and maybe it’s how Kim is starting to see him too.
It’s difficult to build tension and create real stakes in a prequel, and that problem is magnified the closer a film or television show gets to the familiar part of the timeline. If the audience already knows who lives and who dies, and who has to reach a certain point of the story unscathed for that matter, it can mute some of the excitement and intrigue of a particular plotline.
On the other hand, it can also heighten the tension in an episode by spotlighting the mystery between the known beginning and the known ending. As Better Call Saul shows Nacho planning a hit on Tuco, we know that Tuco lives; we know that Mike lives, and thanks to the opening scene in “Gloves Off”, we know that the crafty Mr. Ehrmantraut ends up bruised and battered, presumably in the attempt. All of this raises the question of how we get from Point A to Point B.
Does the hit go wrong? Does Mike beg off from Nacho and catch a beating for his troubles? In true Breaking Bad fashion does some unexpected intervening factor come into play and throw the whole situation out of whack? We don’t know, but we want to know, and that’s just part of the masterful job that BCS does in using its prequel status as a boon and not an obstacle when it comes to holding the audience’s attention.
Better Call Saul is great when it comes to contrasts, especially when it comes to its two most significant characters (who are, incidentally, its two legacy characters from Breaking Bad). “Amarillo” depicts Jimmy McGill as a man trying to do the wrong thing, or at least the underhanded thing, and being pushed to do the right one by those closest to him. It also shows Mike Ehrmantraut as a man trying to do the right thing, in the right way, and being pushed toward crime and the seedier side of the place he now calls home because of those closest to him.
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.
“Switch” isn’t a bad episode of Better Call Saul necessarily. The cold open featuring Jimmy’s misadventures in the mall is quiet and revealing; his main story in the episode has its moments, and Mike’s interaction with his dolt of an employer is the type of humorous vignette that the show does so well. But it’s hard for me to be too over-the-moon about the season premiere for a simple reason — it’s largely a recapitulation of last season’s finale.