Better Call Saul Reviews: “50% Off” (season 5, episode 2)

Hey everyone, let’s talk some more about El Camino!

See, Breaking Bad had an extremely good hook in the fact that no viewer could ever be certain what would happen to the characters next. Death (and worse) was a very real threat. Foreshadowing and misleads were interchangeable until the moment when, suddenly, finally, they were not. Part of what kept viewers tuning in was the desire to know what might happen next.

El Camino could have had a similar effect on viewers, if it weren’t for the fact that “Where does Jesse go now?” isn’t all that intriguing a question. The film, I think, did realize that, which is why it spent so much time in the past.

The problem with those scenes set in the past, of course, is that we know Jesse escapes the Nazi compound. There’s very little opportunity to wonder what happens next. We’ve seen it. And we’ve seen that he’s already moving on to new adventures.

Why do I bring this up now? Because Better Call Saul had to find a solution to the same problem. Every time we encounter a Breaking Bad character on this show, up to and including Saul himself, we know exactly where they end up. So, really, where’s the narrative tension?

In El Camino, it’s nowhere. In Better Call Saul, it’s everywhere.

El Camino had to deal with the fact that we knew Jesse escaped along with the fact that no reasonable human being would have been emotionally invested in the Nazis. We know they eventually get gunned down by Walt, and that’s all we need to know.

The film therefore decided to slip another antagonist into Jesse’s ordeal: the welder who built the track that kept him chained up while he cooked meth. If we can’t worry about the guy we sympathize with, we can at least give him a nemesis that outlived the bloodbath that ended Breaking Bad. Jesse gets to find him and exact revenge.

Except that that’s only kind of what happens. Jesse bumps into him more out of coincidence than anything. He doesn’t even recognize him. And after he does, we still don’t know who he is. Then later he goes to the guy’s workshop and shoots him because he needs money. The revenge is incidental. The one thing we could have narratively been invested in is something the movie essentially glosses over, because it thinks the more important thing is where the vehicle parks when it sets Jesse free.

Better Call Saul has been infinitely savvier about sustaining tension when we already know the ending. We’ve talked many times about how this show isn’t really about Saul; it’s about Jimmy McGill and the gradual shaving away of his soul. It’s a different character from the one we knew in Breaking Bad. It’s a character with different hopes and dreams and intentions…and we watch him get slowly crushed (and slowly crush himself) into the lowlife criminal lawyer he is destined to become.

The tension of course comes in part from the turmoil within Jimmy, but it also comes from the others in his life. Chuck, Howard, Kim. They’re all unique to this show. We didn’t know their endings going in. We just got to watch as Jimmy’s transformation affected their own lives, and as we came to care about them, we also came to worry. To fret. To hope against hope that they’ll escape his gravity.

Then there’s Nacho, was briefly in Jimmy’s orbit and who ends “50% Off” screaming into it again. We don’t know what happens to him, except that he isn’t around by the time Breaking Bad begins.

Nacho isn’t a bad person, really. He’s a criminal, yes, and he’s made some extraordinarily foolish career choices, but there’s an honest core to him that means if he eventually gets executed in a parking lot, it’s going to hit hard.

The tension there is obvious; we care about him (to some degree) and don’t know his ultimate fate. The show has toyed with us in regard to his fate a few times, sticking him under Tuco and then Hector, two dangerous men who represented such a threat to him (and his family) that he had to take each of them out of the equation. Now Hector is replaced by Eduardo, someone who is already threatening to be more dangerous and less predictable than his two predecessors, and Nacho is still trapped.

What’s more? Gus is now threatening Nacho’s family, too, and insisting that the boy get closer to Eduardo rather than further away. It’s an extremely cruel twist that works perfectly to ratchet up the tension, even as the stakes remain exactly the same.

But intermittently Better Call Saul turns into a show about Mike, and I can’t say enough about how well this show has been handling his particular emotional journey.

I wrote in the previous review that I expected the Werner stuff to stay put in the previous season. Mike would be affected by it, as he must, but he’d carry it with him silently and it would be up to us to read into whatever came next.

I was wrong, and it continues now. Werner’s name is still spoken aloud. Mike is still struggling. In the previous episode I felt genuinely bad when he punched Kai. That poor guy was just trying to reach out and make Mike feel better. In this episode, I was positively heartbroken when he yelled at Kaylee. In fact, I can’t imagine a single more heartbreaking thing for Mike to do than snap at his own granddaughter.

We watch the entire exchange come unglued, with Mike moving from adorably teaching her multiplication to giving shorter and shorter answers to yelling at her for something she probably still doesn’t understand.

She brings up Mike’s son. Another of the good men who isn’t around anymore because Mike failed them. And it upsets him. Which is understandable. But he doesn’t realize in that moment that Matty was the girl’s father, and that talking about him is important to her. He’s a figure she doesn’t remember. Learning about him makes her happy; talking about him makes Mike angry. For perhaps the only time, Mike puts his own emotions before Kaylee’s.

And it’s positively brutal.

What makes all of this interesting isn’t the fact that Mike is dealing with emotional fallout we never knew about prior to Better Call Saul, but that he’s doing it at a point that coincides with his disentanglement from Gus.

Last week, Gus was willing to pay him to (essentially) do nothing until they could start up again. Mike told him to shove it, which was understandable, but we know he eventually goes back.

What happens? What gets a broken Mike plagued with guilt to walk willingly back into an arrangement he knows can only cause more misery?

We don’t know. We can’t know. All we know is that something is happening. Better Call Saul has taken a character whose end we already know and gave us a reason to wonder what happens next.

That’s even more impressive now that El Camino has showed us just how hard it is to do.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Magic Man” (season 5, episode 1) & El Camino

I promised a review of El Camino, but that was before I saw it. It’s not that I have nothing to say about the film; it’s more the fact that anything I could say about it would be informed by my feelings about Better Call Saul.

Of course, I’ll explain.

El Camino is a sequel film to Breaking Bad. It’s on Netflix, so go watch it if you haven’t. It follows Jesse Pinkman through the aftermath of “Felina,” which sounds like a great concept. Except, really, the aftermath doesn’t end up being worth following anyone through.

Walt’s world and the horrors with which he ravaged it felt huge in Breaking Bad. Of course they did; they were the focus of the show. The characters that came into his life and the ways in which they changed (or had change visited upon them) would certainly agree that the reign of Heisenberg was enormous, impactful, and cataclysmic.

With just a little bit of distance, though, the events of Breaking Bad were what David Byrne might refer to as a tiny apocalypse. Visiting a post-Walt Albuquerque in El Camino reveals a world that is far from shattered, or even really upset. Some characters are dead, some news reports dot the airwaves, some buildings are crime scenes.

That’s it, and that’s okay. There’s a kind of story one can tell with that kind of insight. But that was not the story of El Camino. Revealing the events of Breaking Bad to have had precious little effect on the town in which it took place could have been interesting, but that revelation is a side effect of a story too light to have its own gravity.

Here’s the thing: I liked every single individual component of El Camino. The writing, acting, and directing were fantastic, which honestly should go without saying at this point. The jokes were funny. The drama was strong. The tension was masterful.

But somehow they assembled into a movie I honestly can’t say I liked.

It felt inconsequential. Unimportant. When Jesse sped away from Breaking Bad, it was easy to assume that he’d find some kind of normalcy. Clearly it would not be an easy one. Clearly he would have to work hard to find any kind of future for himself. Clearly there was no going home.

That’s all we knew, and there was room to tell us more. Instead, that’s all El Camino really did tell us. It told its story well, but did we really need to know — specifically — where Jesse went and how he got there? Or to put it another way, now that we do know…does it change anything at all?

If you like, you could comb through Breaking Bad and find chapters that, ultimately, came to nothing. Plot threads left hanging. Setups without payoff. Ideas raised before different, better ideas seized control. I get it. El Camino is not unique in being an unnecessary stretch of Breaking Bad.

The difference, though, is that we came back for El Camino. Breaking Bad was an ongoing, evolving work of fiction. It was published by the chapter. As the story went on, certain things the writers thought would be crucial were rendered vestigial. That’s what happens. That’s okay.

But El Camino wasn’t an organic part of the story. It was something tacked on to the end of the story after everything had been brought to a conclusion. To bring it back is to say louder than literally any previous episode had ever said, “I have something to say.”

El Camino really didn’t have much to say. We got some funny scenes with Old Joe and the vacuum salesman. We got to see Mike and Walt again, in happier times, unaware of their looming fates. And while I can’t say I ever wanted to see Todd again, the body disposal scenes felt like they could have been lifted directly from a final-season episode of Breaking Bad. They fit, they worked, and they would have been a great way to kill some time as the show approached its terminal point.

But we shouldn’t bring the show back just to kill that time. Why, really, would we even do that?

What does this have to do with Better Call Saul? Saul doesn’t even appear in El Camino, which was a genuine shock to me as we’re already filling in unseen bits of Jimmy’s history and might as well toss in a Breaking Bad-era scene or two, right?

Well, see, I’ve joked a few times in these reviews about the story of how Saul came to like money, or the story of how Gus dug a big hole, and the fact that these stories never, ever needed to have been told. Period. We didn’t need them. The world was no poorer for not knowing the answers to these non-mysteries.

And yet Better Call Saul made (and makes) those stories matter. Nobody should have cared, but the show worked hard to make us care. It showed us important things where we couldn’t rightly have expected to find them.

El Camino tells the story of where Jesse went after Breaking Bad. Another story that didn’t need to be told. But it was also a story that, by its end, didn’t convince me otherwise. El Camino was exactly what I worried Better Call Saul was going to be: unnecessary.

Which brings us to “Magic Man.” It’s recently been confirmed that Better Call Saul will end with season six, meaning we are in this show’s endgame and the writers know it. And yet they are still, as we bid our final farewells to Jimmy McGill, finding new ways to explore and understand these characters.

El Camino didn’t provide us, at all, with any new insight into Jesse Pinkman. But throughout “Magic Man” we learn a lot about characters we already thought we knew from Breaking Bad.

Jimmy’s circus-tent cellphone giveaway is the big one, of course, showing us the precise moment when the character’s shrewd sense of showmanship crystallizes into shysterism. (His desperate floundering when he runs out of phones results in him promising a 50% discount to any clients who commit nonviolent felonies within the next two weeks, illustrating the point of no return that much more quickly. It began as a tasteless joke with Kim, and is then made foolish reality.)

There’s Gus’ relationship with the cartel, which is still being explored and redefined, as he tries to wriggle out from under the Salamanca family’s thumb. (More on this in a bit.)

And there’s Mike…who I figured would have been changed by the events of “Winner” in a quiet, internal way. I was wrong. He slugs Kai when the boy attempts a gesture of goodwill, promising Mike that he understands why Werner had to die. In trying to say the right thing, Kai says precisely the wrong thing. When somebody else tells Mike that Werner did not deserve to die and was 50 times the man Mike will ever be…Mike does not react. The wrong thing to say was actually the right thing.

Of course we also have the characters unique to this show, such as Kim who is clearly agonizing over Jimmy’s decision to practice law as Saul Goodman, but who ultimately has to concede he knows what he’s doing. For now, at least, he’s interested in using his powers for good. This show will end next season, so we know we shouldn’t get used to that.

And there’s newcomer Eduardo, who was introduced at the end of last season. Then I was able to see him as a sort of Salamanca response to Mike. We even saw him defined through the differences between the methods of the two men. Mike tricks a desk clerk to get information he needs; Eduardo beats and kills that desk clerk for the same information. Mike gums up a parking gate; Eduardo smashes through it.

In “Magic Man,” yeah, that contrast is still on display, but we see Eduardo is not just a foil to Mike; he’s a foil to the entire arrangement. He blabs openly about things that should obviously be kept quiet. He confronts his own dealers without making it clear what he’s doing, or why. He asks questions of Gus when it would be appropriate for him to accept an apology and move on. He coerces Gus into introducing him to Mike and drops information he shouldn’t have.

The drug trade has been portrayed as a dance and Eduardo is trying to turn it into a bar fight. It’s bizarre and unpredictable, just like he is. He both keeps everyone on their toes and makes it impossible for them to predict what he will do next. I wouldn’t say Better Call Saul was lacking energy, but it certainly gets a hell of a lot more from Eduardo.

Which, to be honest, is where I think I’ll leave it tonight. The next episode of the show premieres shortly. I won’t get to see it and review it until tomorrow, but that’s okay. Because “Magic Man” has moved a lot of things forward, and we won’t have to wait until next week to see them moved even further.

It’s a big difference from El Camino, which just kept spinning its wheels.

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