Better Call Saul Reviews: “Amarillo” (season 2, episode 3)

I was far too young to understand the central courtship in Moonlighting. I was just too young to care much about Sam and Diane on Cheers. But let me make one thing very clear: I feel as though I’m genuinely invested in the doomed romance at the core of Better Call Saul.

Kim and Jimmy matter to me…and I say this as somebody who usually couldn’t care less about will-they/won’t-they plots. It probably helps that this situation is more of a they-already-have/they-definitely-won’t. But, ultimately, I care. The strong writing and characterization undoubtedly help me to care, but it’s the easy chemistry between Odenkirk and Seehorn that truly makes it work. And it works because we know it’s destined to fail.

Better Call Saul is a tragedy. If you somehow escaped the cultural shockwaves of Breaking Bad, the two black-and-white fast forward sequences on this show make that much clear. There isn’t going to be — and emphatically cannot be — a happy ending, and their chemistry is made more tragic by virtue of the fact that it is so easy.

If Odenkirk and Seehorn didn’t roll off of each other so easily, didn’t complement each other’s comic and emotional strengths so well, didn’t feel so fucking right together, their relationship would just be one of many interlocking gears that keep the series chugging along. Instead, it matters. It means something on its own. And it’s all the more poignant that it’s going to come crashing, painfully, down on them both.

I love, love, love, love Kim. Better Call Saul needed to flesh out its roster beyond Saul and our old friends the Breaking Buddies, so it would be a lie to say that Kim Wexler was born of anything other than narrative necessity. And at first she even felt that way. But it didn’t take long for the show to position her as the singular, most defining difference between doe-eyed Jimmy and cynical Saul.

Jimmy has a heart.

We see it weekly. We see it when last week’s under-table flirtations are rescinded this time around…a rebuff so meaningful it causes Jimmy to double back and undo some of the good will he built up for himself, simply because she knew he built it dishonestly. And we see it again when a high-five turns to a held hand. Jimmy and Kim have already slept together…probably more than once. And yet her hand in his is what feels to him like paradise.

I understand that the language I’m using here can make it sound as though Kim exists simply for Jimmy to react to, as a goal to be reached or missed, as some personified gauge of his success as a human being…and, well, in a sense she is.

But only in a sense.

She is those things because this is Better Call Saul, and not Jimmy ‘n’ Kim: Flirty Attorneys. We will always see other characters through the filter of how they affect Jimmy, because this is the story of who he is.

But Kim doesn’t stop there. The writers invest her with a distinct personality of her own, and Rhea Seehorn’s performance suggests a real, rich human life behind it. She can serve a token role without being a token character, and as the weeks go by and she and Jimmy drift inevitably apart, I think it will become more apparent how autonomous she really is. Right now we see one side of her, because she’s on our protagonist’s side. Eventually she — or he — will permanently pull away, and we’ll see something else.

There is one exception to the rule that all characters are seen through Jimmy’s filter, and that’s Mike, whose own story has barely intersected Jimmy’s so far in the grand scheme of things.

That’s…odd, I have to admit. Sometimes it feels as though we’re watching Better Call Saul with interruptions from a supporting feature. There’s plenty of time — indeed, as much time as the writers would like to take — for their stories to comment on each other more directly, but for now the Mike material feels more like a fun digression than it does an organic component of Jimmy’s rise and fall.

I like Mike. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you probably know that, but I want to make it clear here, because I was left a bit cold by his stuff this week. Yes, Jonathan Banks is incredible. Period. The man can eat a sandwich and make you feel like you’re watching your father get gunned down. But he still feels like an emissary from a different show rather than a character who belongs in this one.

That was made especially clear by the end of the episode. Mike goes to the vet to get some work. Then we find out that someone requested him by name. And then we see that Nacho wants him to bump somebody off. That’s three separate instances of the show promising tension — the last of which brings “Amarillo” to a close — but none of them made me feel invested the way a scene of Jimmy and Kim whiling away their dwindling hours together with Rock Hudson movies did.

That felt thrilling to me…knowing that their relationship is doomed to sink like that submarine. The Mike and Nacho teamup should have left me wanting more, but, frankly, I could have done with less. The real heart and spirit of the show is with our star-crossed leads, and it says something that the promise of exciting violence to come will also, disappointingly, distract us from the longer, softer, talk-y bits.

Am I down on the Mike stuff? No. I like it as much as the next guy. But I like the Kim material even more…and this episode gave great weight to the fact that she unwittingly enables Jimmy’s worst impulses. He’s seeking her validation so desperately that he’ll jeopardize his standing (as he did in the briefing meeting that opened the episode) and his job (as he did with the commercial). He wants her more than he wants respect, money, security, or anything else that’s being handed to him, and that’s both brilliantly sad and intricately woven into the fabric of the show. Mike’s stuff — at least for now — is just Mike stuff. Great on its own, but dim in comparison.

Season two is heading in an interesting direction, as Jimmy’s climbing that hill and proving, week after week, that he’s good at his job…but he’s also engendering a lot of doubt along the way. First there was Chuck, who knew him from his Slippin’ Jimmy days, but now it’s his new boss as well. Jimmy can get results, and can even use his showmanship to do The Right Thing, but he also loses allies along the way. He starts by flipping a light switch he knows he shouldn’t touch…and ratchets up his behavior until he’s buying airtime for an unauthorized commercial. The consequences are going to catch up to him, and if your enemies are powerful enough, it won’t matter how much good you did along the way.

“Amarillo” was a great episode in spite of the fact that it accomplished very little. It was a reminder that place setting can still be satisfying, that promises delivered deftly can be rewards in their own right. And it had probably my single favorite moment of the show yet, in which Jimmy urges his elderly clients to dismiss thoughts of Sandpiper as an armed robber…right after he himself planted that image.

That’s the show being as playful as Jimmy is…working us the same way he works them. Tricky, knowingly dopey, making us feel smarter than we really are in aid of getting us to come along for the ride.

The true delight of Better Call Saul was illustrated wonderfully by that scene. It’s Bob Odenkirk — along with a team of massively gifted writers — working a room. And just as that bus was stalled, I’m starting to care less and less about whether we ever make it to our destination. I’m just enjoying the show.

Then again, this episode had “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. McGill,” which can fuck right off.