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Category Archives: Better Call Saul
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.
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”.