Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
Header

Intentional or not, I’d say that my break from Better Call Saul has helped the reviews. I don’t think I felt like I was tired of the show, or sick of writing about it, or anything like that, but coming back to it after a delay has given me more to talk about. Better ways with which to express my feelings. Larger questions to raise. In short, it turned out to be a good thing, and I believe my past few reviews are superior to the ones that came before.

Now there’s an episode like “Fifi.” And, man…how on Earth to talk about “Fifi”?

Is it bad? No.

Is it good? Eh.

Is it interesting? Getting warmer, I guess.

In the review for “Gloves Off” we talked about middle chapters. “Fifi” is another one, but instead of suggesting any forward momentum or decisive character moments, it’s just kind of there.

Frankly, I think “Fifi” is the result of the logistical constraints of serialized drama. When writing a sitcom, for instance, you’ll know that you have, say, 22 episodes to fill. So, of course, you dream up 22 stories to tell. I’m unquestionably simplifying things, but for drop-in/drop-out programming like that, all that really matters is that you’ve hit the requisite number of stories to fill your quota.

Serialized drama is different. Neither Breaking Bad nor Better Call Saul featured self-contained stories to any significant degree. One sitcom story lasts, for the most part, the length of one episode. One Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul story could last a season. Or more. And, hey, now that you mention it, how do we define stories on these shows anyway? Don’t they just sort of continue? Transform or ignite other stories? Resurface when we least expect them?

What I’m getting at here is that the hypothetical Slippin’ Jimmy & Friends sitcom would almost certainly feature entirely self-contained stories on a weekly basis. If it still gets 10 episodes per season, the writers need to write 10 self-contained stories. That’s easy. But writing Better Call Saul forces them to think in season-long arcs…and then where the characters will be left when it’s over, and whether or not that will be fruitful enough for another batch of episodes…and so on and so on. In addition, Better Call Saul has the unenviable task of tying everything eventually back into its parent series.

It’s no longer a 1:1 story:episode ratio. Jimmy McGill is in one place at the start of the season, and the writers want to get him to another place by the end. The episodes themselves, therefore, become steps rather than stories. Jimmy has milestones to hit along the way, and ideally we get some nice character interaction in there…maybe set some time aside to explore larger themes or to let Mike calmly dispense whoop-ass…but the season is the concern, not the individual episodes.

So we get a “Fifi,” now and then. An episode that only barely pushes anything forward. An episode so full of long, wordless stretches (the customs sequence, Mike’s stakeout, Jimmy monkeying around with the Mesa Verde files) that it wears its lack of urgency like a badge.

Reader Stephen Fletcher reminded me of something when I wondered about the significance of Rebecca in the episode that was named after her: he said that the first letter of each episode’s title creates an anagram. By now, I don’t think it’s worth redacting the spoiler; it spells FRING’S BACK. So that’s why that episode had to be named after Rebecca; we needed the R. Personally I think they could have called it “Regret” or “Reconsideration” or “Reprisal” or something that had a bit more to do with anything that happened in the episode, but so be it.

“Fifi” by that same logic might as well be called “Filler.”

But, hey, it’s not without merit. Better Call Saul has one of the wall-to-wall best casts on television right now, and it’s a pleasure to watch them go about their business, even if that business seems relatively light.

This time around, we even get to see another side of Chuck: we get to see him being an actual lawyer. His salvaging of the Mesa Verde account was both impressive and unexpected, and we get a sense of just why he’s still valuable to Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, despite his reclusive lifestyle. (We also get yet another indication that his “sickness” is all in his mind, as he’s able to make it through a long, important meeting with aplomb and only begins to falter once the client leaves.)

That much was nice. Even if he was single-handedly crippling Jimmy’s and Kim’s prospects as solo practitioners.

Yeah, if “Fifi” tugs any of the narrative threads along, it’s that one, forcing us to experience Kim’s emotional roller coaster right alongside her. She’s throwing her lot in with Jimmy, she retains Mesa Verda, she loses Mesa Verde. Apprehensive, empowered, crushed. It’s a nice little journey for the character, and part of me wishes it were joined to a more gripping episode in general.

We’re left knowing almost nothing more than we knew at the end of last week, as well. Wexler & McGill is still a blank slate.

Then there’s Mike, whose story barely advances…but does advance just enough to prove me wrong yet again. First I thought Hector might want to use Mike for muscle in the future. Then I thought Mike might be heading back to Hector to ask for more work. Now…who knows. Mike scopes out Hector’s operations and…that’s about it. It was a bit odd that he let Kaylee help him build whatever monstrous device he was working on in his kitchen, as I’d honestly think he’d want his granddaughter to have no part in his dealings whatsoever, but, again, that’s what you get from an episode like “Fifi.” It needs to tread water, and that’s what it forces the characters to do as well.

I’m also not sure what Jimmy was doing toward the end with the Mesa Verde files. He obviously switched an address on a few of the documents, but I’m not sure what his aim is. Is he trying to make Chuck look incompetent or something? Surely if Chuck fucks up an address he’ll be corrected, and then that’s that. Worst case scenario is that he compares his copies of the files to some other records and ascertains immediately that Jimmy meddled. I’m sure I’m wrong, but as of right now I have no clue how this is meant to impact Chuck at all. “Fifi” sure seems to think it’s important…I just wish it gave me reason enough to join it.

And, hey, as long as we’re wallowing in confusion…that customs sequence at the beginning. Was that a nod to the opening of Breaking Bad‘s “Kafkaesque,” when we see the Los Pollos Hermanos trucks transporting illicit substances along with their expected cargo? I assume so, but “Fifi” doesn’t tell us the significance of anything — almost literally anything — it shows us. It wasn’t a Los Pollos Hermanos truck, obviously, but I’m wondering if it ties into Fring’s return in any way, or if it’s just a neat, time-killing callback.

It would be nice if “Fifi” answered some questions, as I think it needed to be a far more engaging episode than it is.

But we still have two chapters left to go. It’s possible that “Fifi” set them up for a grand slam.

Well, this one was certainly fun. That doesn’t necessarily translate to “good,” but as necessarily disappointing as “Inflatable” is, I enjoyed it, and I think it’s going to prove to be one of Better Call Saul‘s most memorable episodes.

I say disappointing not because I didn’t like it, but because it represents a likely hard stop for many aspects of the show. Yes, we all knew Jimmy’s employment at Davis & Main was a detour at best. He wasn’t going to be there for long. That’s no surprise. But aside from the daring commercial, its inevitable fallout, and, now, Jimmy’s bombastic farewell, the arc didn’t bear much fruit.

I think I’m disappointed because Davis & Main fulfilled its narrative necessity without digging too deeply into the possibilities it offered for characterization. Ed Begley Jr. is always a delight, but now that he’s out of the regular supporting cast it’s easy to see that he didn’t do — or contribute — much of anything to the show. Jimmy’s bristling at Erin’s constant supervision of him was also an interesting dynamic that is now doomed to remain almost entirely unexplored. And his awkward farewell to Omar — who genuinely seemed to like Jimmy if he didn’t necessarily respect him — suggests a fertile pairing that was over before it started.

In short, the job was exactly as disposable as Jimmy, Kim, and Chuck all suspected it was. I was holding out hope for it, and I think I’ll always wish we spent a little more time there. A handful of episodes isn’t enough to really explore Jimmy’s new surroundings, and now we’re already saying goodbye, heading back to the nail salon for the next phase of Jimmy’s career.

To be clear, I’m disappointed because this job could have offered the show so much more. We didn’t see much outside of Jimmy making a well-intentioned blunder, after which we sidelined his character for a few weeks and returned to see him angling to be fired. There should have been more to Davis & Main than that.

The positive aspect of this, however, is the fact that the episode’s cliffhanger isn’t the season’s cliffhanger. When we hear that Jimmy and Kim will (likely) strike out on their own, we don’t have to spend the between-seasons break wondering what that will look like. Potentially we have three episodes already lined up that will give us a taste. That may be worth truncating the Davis & Main stage of things. We’ll certainly find out.

So, yes, I was wrong about Jimmy’s restroom conversation in “Rebecca” suggesting that he decided not to throw away his job. I’m guessing now that the function was to make him look like even more of a dope in our eyes when he almost immediately turned around and did so anyway. But that’s fine! I like getting things wrong. I like thinking through a series of consequences only to find a well-written show present me with an entirely different series. It challenges me as a viewer and expands my horizons as an artist. I’m all for that.

As long as I’m confessing to idiocy, I was also wrong, apparently, about Hector thinking he could use Mike as muscle in the future. At the end of the episode, it seems like it might be the opposite: Mike thinks he can use Hector for work. My new prediction is that next week’s episode is about a surprise party Hector is throwing for the cousins. He hires Mike to wheel in the giant cake, which Gus Fring then pops out of and they fall in love. Callin’ it.

The biggest Breaking Bad connection comes with this week’s enormous piece of the Saul Goodman puzzle: his wardrobe. We learn of its origin here as an act of professional defiance…and man, if that’s not an absolutely perfect in-universe rationale I don’t know what is.

Of course, I think there’s more to it than Jimmy’s need to piss off Clifford; I do think he’s genuinely drawn to the gaudiness. After all, he keeps the suits after they’ve served their purpose, and he wears them all through his incarnation as Saul Goodman. What’s more, we’ve already seen him considering such “optical migraines” in “Hero.” I think this really is just Jimmy’s fashion sense — or some quarter of it — and it also happens to offer an easy out.

The title “Inflatable” refers to the flailing-arm tube-man that inspires Jimmy to reconsider his wardrobe…something which leads to both an incredible montage of the younger McGill purposefully tanking his prospects and to probably the single funniest episode of Better Call Saul yet. It’s easy to turn “Inflatable” comic once you realize you’re going to get Bob Odenkirk back in bright colors and let him honk on some bagpipes in the middle of a workday, but what surprises me is how effectively the comedy works.

Back in “Uno” and “Mijo,” the first two episodes of this show, I thought there was an intermittent problem of tone. That’s not to say that the show faltered in any significant way, but if there was an early weakness for Better Call Saul it was the cartooniness of some of the supporting characters. Odenkirk — to literally nobody’s surprise — understood perfectly and thoroughly the necessary balance between laughter and sincerity. He was a comic actor with the emphasis on “actor,” while some others around his periphery, such as the two young men he teams up with in an ill-fated bid that leads him instead to a crazed Tuco, obviously preferred to lean on the “comic.”

Since then the show’s been better at maintaining the right kind of comedy for its atmosphere. One that’s conducive to big laughs but also doesn’t rob the universe of its gravitas. In fact, “Inflatable” calls right back to those two episodes as Jimmy describes to Mike his encounter with Tuco…and it serves as a reminder — deliberate or not — of just how much better the show already is, by simple virtue of its more consistent tone.

In fact, the rampant comedy of that scene plays right into one of the most deflating moments we’ve seen yet. (Though it admittedly would have landed better if we’d spent more time with Clifford.)

JIMMY: Cliff…for what it’s worth, I think you’re a good guy.
CLIFF: For what it’s worth, I think you’re an asshole.

That’s the kind of thing you can only do when you let your characters matter.

But, yes, Jimmy gets fired, which means he keeps his signing bonus, which means he has some capital.

…which means he invites Kim to strike out with him at the lawfirm of Wexler-McGill. That’s a pretty loaded name…not just because Jimmy lists her first, but because Wexler-McGill is what Kim’s last name would be if she does indeed turn out to be one of Jimmy’s wives.

That’s pretty clever.

What’s more, she agrees with him!

Kinda!

It won’t be Wexler-McGill, though…it’ll be Wexler & McGill. They’ll share office space, they’ll collaborate…but they won’t be partners. They’ll be individual lawyers, operating not together but in close proximity. And I think we can all agree with Kim that this was the better move. Presumably Jimmy will accept her counter-offer; I don’t see a rational or compelling reason that he wouldn’t. But, either way, this could lead to some very interesting places…not least because Jimmy will be free enough to operate in whatever underhanded ways he sees fit, and Kim will be in near enough proximity to notice it.

Something is going to sink this relationship. And we may have just learned the venue for that showdown.

Of course, Jimmy wasn’t the only one courting Kim away from Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Was she wise to sidle up to Jimmy while turning down an offer from an established, respectable firm with definite prospects for partnership? Maybe not…but I buy her decision. Easily. And I think it just comes down to one word she used in the interview when she was asked about why she left her hometown. She told them what she wanted: “More.”

Then they made a nice offer.

But we know she wants more.

Whatever that means, whatever it could mean, I believe it.

It’s worth also considering the flashback that opens “Inflatable.” It’s clearly a formative moment for Jimmy, what with being told to decide between identifying as a wolf or a sheep, but what’s more interesting to me is how deliberately it refuses to prove Chuck’s story from “Rebecca” either right or wrong.

Did Jimmy sink the family business? We do see him stealing from the till, but we also see Charles Sr. being so willing to hand over money to strangers that he’s earned an embarrassing reputation for it. So, yes, Jimmy pocketed cash and that’s certainly a terrible thing to do, especially to your own family…but it does seem like Charles Sr.’s habits, as of right now, are more likely to have resulted in the greater loss.

That also explains why Charles Sr. refused to believe Chuck; he himself knew how much he had given away. He refused to let Jimmy take the blame because even if they boy did steal…he couldn’t have stolen as much as Charles Sr. knew he was responsible for handing out.

Just some thoughts…the kind of thoughts you can only have in regards to a show that knows what it’s doing, even if it sometimes, here and there, seems like it might not.

A lesser show would have used the flashback to prove Chuck right or to definitively establish him as a liar. (Or at least as an unreliable source.) Better Call Saul keeps that particular ball in the air.

And I like that.

Because the McGill boys aren’t going to stop feuding any time soon, and I kind of love how often I’m invited to shit my allegiance.

The second half of a season of a heavily serialized show like Better Call Saul needs to suggest momentum toward some clear — though obviously temporary — terminal point. “Bali Ha’i” suggests that the show is fully aware of this, as it edges our three primary characters toward decisions they won’t be able to take back.

And that particular number of primary characters — drifting around, having independent arcs, setting out on rarely overlapping adventures of their own — can prove troublesome at such a time. No, it’s not difficult, narratively speaking, to push Jimmy, Mike, and Kim separately onto the next step of their developments. But as their paths seem to diverge more often than they converge, what does that mean for Better Call Saul? Doesn’t that make it less about how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman and more like some shared-universe anthology series?

I’m speaking hypothetically here about the problem, and I don’t mean to suggest that Better Call Saul actually has that problem. But I do think, from the standpoint of artistic construction, that it’s a question worth considering. I’m willing to believe that Kim plays some very clear, very direct, very specific part in Jimmy’s transformation…but is that because of anything I’ve seen in Better Call Saul? Or is it because Breaking Bad already told me where he ends up, and as this is its prequel series I am obligated to assume that she must?

To put it another way, if Breaking Bad didn’t exist, would I watch Better Call Saul and conclude that Kim will become more important to Jimmy as the show progresses? Or less?

The same, of course, can be asked of Mike, but we already discussed that a bit in the last episode. He was off on his own journey, doing his own thing, not really relevant to or interested in whatever the heck Jimmy McGill was doing. That was obvious. Less obvious at the time was that we could have said the same thing about Kim.

“Bali Ha’i” brings the question to a head, pushing Kim right up to a further separation from the initial, core version of the show as she toys seriously with the idea of leaving Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. No, that wouldn’t necessarily remove her entirely from Jimmy’s orbit…but it would push them, in a logistical sense, a degree further apart.

Originally Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill was the connective tissue for Jimmy, Kim, Chuck, Howard, and indirectly Mike. It’s the one thing, the one setting, the one constant they all had in common. Then Jimmy relocated and joined a different law firm. Mike’s role as a courthouse parking attendant became sidelined to focus on his independent contracting for gang members. Now Kim considers leaving, too. And she might. I hope she will, if only to see what Better Call Saul does once nearly all of its characters have left the mothership.

Of course, as “Bali Ha’i” toys with Kim further splintering the narrative, Kim herself reaches back out to tie it together. She talks to Jimmy again. She invites him to relive the high of the season-opening “Switch” by swindling a vulnerable mark, which is a nice moment. A much nicer moment is the reveal that they don’t cash these checks; they hold onto them like trophies, which is almost adorable.

But the nicest moment is that both Jimmy and Kim — each on thin ice with their respective firms — walk out on their work obligations to do this. They each know that they’re abandoning their careers (again, temporarily) to pursue something that’s more important to them: each other. They’re individually in deep shit. They individually have to claw their way back out. They individually need to atone, professionally, for damaging lapses of judgment.

Goofing around together is important, though, too. And when Kim calls Jimmy to join her, it’s clear that now, at least, it’s more important. To both of them.

One very interesting revelation to me is that Kim also worked in the mail room at Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. In fact, she did so for six years. I knew that Jimmy met and befriended her when he worked in the mail room — in fact, “Rebecca” tells us that they became close within his first week on the job — but I didn’t realize that she was a direct colleague. I figured she was an attorney of some kind who just happened to get chummy with someone who was a bit lower than her on the corporate ladder. That would gibe with just about everything I’d already concluded about Kim, so I was surprised to find out that they were sealing envelopes and fumbling around with the copier together.

This adds a bit of a wrinkle to my pet theme, which is that you are what you are, and if you try to be or become anything else, the universe will slap you right back down. Certainly that still applies to Jimmy, but now we find that Kim was granted an opportunity to advance. To grow. To develop into something more. Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill even fronted the money for her schooling.

But we don’t know the full picture. She went from the mail room to the conference room, but Jimmy didn’t. We know that. She had her tuition covered. Jimmy didn’t. We know that, too.

That’s all we really know, though. And while it may complicate the theme, I don’t feel compelled to abandon it just yet. Somebody, at some point, for some reason, was willing to nurture something in Kim. Was willing to take a chance. Was willing to elevate her. Whereas Jimmy was preterite. Passed over. Refused. No matter how hard he worked or what he accomplished, he would not be afforded the same chance that Kim was.

Perhaps Kim’s place in the universe has some degree of mobility factored into it. Granted, it’s mobility that comes with a high price (or at least two high prices: firm loyalty and debt), but it is mobility. And, hey, maybe Jimmy’s does, too. We know he doesn’t end up where we see him now. Part of the Better Call Saul experience might just be finding out first-hand exactly the lengths of everybody’s leash.

Then there’s Mike, who this week is in deep shit of his own. Yes, it’s great to see Action Grandpa doing his thing. That will never get old, and I’ll take scenes like his remote-control fakeout every week until the show decides to stop giving them to me. But I have to say that I didn’t expect to see the cousins from Breaking Bad turn up. And I felt the chill when they did.

The cousins menaced Walter White in everyone’s favorite parent show, and they were a very real, very legitimate, very scary threat there. I probably should have expected them to turn up at some point — what with Tuco, Gonzo, No-Doze, and Hector already here, leaving a pretty wide opening for them — but…yeah. That was probably the biggest surprise cameo I’ve experienced in this show yet.

But it made me wonder: how does a show like this handle tension when every viewer already knows who lives? Sure, they silently threaten Mike’s granddaughter Kaylee, and I think it’s fair to say that a drug cartel menacing a little girl is a scary thing by default. But we’ve seen Breaking Bad. We know that they never get to Kaylee. We know that they never get to her mother. Hell, we know that they never get to Mike. (And how great is it that Mike eventually kills one of them directly in “I See You”? He must have felt pretty good about that.)

In fact, the one character who seems to be the most dangerous — Hector — is the one we already know comes out badly. (Though, obviously, his eventual incapacitation may in no way be a result of this particular event.) The characters we like will be okay, and the characters we don’t like are going to suffer.

That should be reassuring rather than worrying.

So…where’s the tension?

To quote an earlier paragraph, I’m speaking hypothetically here about the problem, and I don’t mean to suggest that Better Call Saul actually has that problem. It’s just interesting to consider. If everyone watching already knows who lives and dies (unlike the artful, spiraling uncertainty of Breaking Bad), what do you do?

It’s hard to say, and “Bali Ha’i” doesn’t have the answer. Better Call Saul will have to find a way to make these foregone conclusions feel uncertain, and I know that it can succeed. After all, how much of Better Call Saul did you picture when you originally wondered what made Saul Goodman who he is?

Yeah, same here.

This show has the capacity and ability to surprise. If anything, it might be playing with us by reminding viewers of that certainty before throwing a curveball. But we’ll see.

One wrinkle worth remembering, though, is Nacho. The one character we know doesn’t make it to Breaking Bad. He can still die. He can still suffer. He can still be a victim.

And that can matter. I don’t know if many people watching the show at this point care about Nacho they way they cared about Walt or Jesse or Hank, but the fact is that there were stretches of Breaking Bad that made it difficult to care about Walt and Jesse and Hank. Each of them, and many other characters, shrugged off audience sympathy at various points. Sometimes they deserved to get their asses kicked…or worse. Which is what made it all the more harrowing when it inevitably came…after they became more sympathetic and we had stopped wishing it upon them.

There’s room to play with Nacho, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I look forward to seeing it happen, though.

Anyway, what’s Noiseless Chatter without some needless bitching about something I enjoyed? (Oh, yes, I enjoyed “Bali Ha’i” a great deal. Let me make that clear.)

My Complaint of the Week is that I’m not sure I buy Hector caving to Mike’s bluster. Hector rescinds his offer of $5,000…telling Mike that that time has passed; all he gets out of it now is an assurance of safety for himself and his family. So far, so good.

Then Mike demands $50,000 instead of…y’know…$0. And after much too little deliberation, Hector agrees.

Why? What does he get out of it?

I don’t know. I question that. It’s probably necessary from a narrative standpoint, but I can’t make sense of the character logic.

Maybe at this point in his life, Hector has something of a heart. Maybe he admires Mike. Maybe he sees this as an investment on working with him again in the future. (It’d sure give him something to lord over him if he ever needs a favor.)

Or maybe, more simply, he just doesn’t want to deal with the cleanup and investigation of three dead bodies, which is going to result in far more work for him than a few years scraped off of his nephew’s sentence is worth.

My point is that there are reasons he might acquiesce to Mike’s demand, and I can think of a bunch of them. But I didn’t feel them during that scene, and I’m willing to believe the show wasn’t sure what they were, either. Hector agreed because he had to agree in order to get to whatever the next plot point is.

And that’s a shame.

Because a reason, or even the ghost of one, would have told us a lot about who he is, where his mind is, and what he’s planning next.

As the episode titles for season two rolled out, this is the one that interested me most. After all, it’s the name of a character we haven’t met yet. That’s intriguing. Is she a client? One of Saul’s eventual ex-wives? A friend or rival who makes a return and further upsets Jimmy’s stability? Whoever she is, she’s all at once important enough to have an episode named after her. That’s exciting. It suggests a force, a presence that means something to these characters and yet hasn’t even been mentioned before.

Interestingly enough, I thought immediately of the female colleague of Jimmy’s we’d seen a few times already. If she had been given a name, I didn’t remember it. Perhaps she was Rebecca? Either way, something about that colleague stood out to me. I was able to tell that she was going to be important at some point. Something about her — whether it was some way the camera lingered on her or just an infectious confidence on the part of the actress — tipped me off to the fact that this character, whoever she was, meant something. My quiet guess at the time was that she’d become an eventual rival for Jimmy’s affections…either forcing Kim out or encouraging her to hold onto him that much more tightly.

I was wrong on all counts. Her name is Erin, and it’s pretty doubtful after this week that there will be anything even remotely resembling romantic chemistry between her and Jimmy. But, coincidentally, “Rebecca” is the episode that indeed affirms her importance.

And I’m glad, because my God is Erin great. In fact, she makes more of an impact than Rebecca does, and adds a potentially interesting — though surely temporary — wrinkle to Jimmy’s story.

Okay, so: who is Rebecca?

It turns out it’s Chuck’s wife. Presumable ex-wife, though I can’t remember if a divorce (or death) has specifically been mentioned in the past. I suspect it hasn’t been and, for now at least, it’s possible they are only separated. (Is anyone out there sharp-eyed enough to have noticed the presence or absence of a ring on Chuck?) Now that I’ve seen the episode and I know this, I’m not entirely sure I know why “Rebecca” bears her name.

Is Rebecca that important to Chuck? To Jimmy? Certainly if she passed away or left Chuck at the height of his love for her or something, it would sting. But is the implication here that Rebecca (like the title character of Hitchcock’s Rebecca) a haunting, unforgettable presence for Chuck that affects the way he lives his life?

I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that — or anything like that — to be the case, but we’ll see how things play out. As of right now it feels like a bit of left-field revelation, but I think it’s safe to say that her absence, whatever the reason behind that absence, ties directly into Chuck’s eventual breakdown and electrical paranoia.

One thing we certainly do learn from the flashback that opens the episode, though, is that people like Jimmy…and Chuck envies this. Even his beloved Rebecca succumbs to the charms of Chuck’s fuckup younger brother…the younger brother she was specifically warned against…the younger brother he gave her a signal to use if she wanted him out of the house. She never uses it. He’s silently appalled.

Then there’s Kim. There’s Clifford. There’s even their father, Charles Sr. People like Jimmy. And as much as the boy looks up to his big brother Chuck, it’s Chuck himself who truly feels jealous.

And this — okay, I realize I’m jumping around a lot, but bear with me — really comes to the fore in the great scene he shares with Kim toward the end of the episode. It’s here that we learn about Charles Sr…and the fact that Jimmy singlehandedly and underhandedly sunk his business. Or…did he? “Rebecca” contains one flashback, and this isn’t it; this is just Chuck, in a chair, speaking to Kim. He has his own motives. Many of which we can guess. Others we can infer. And he’s already reminded us of the fact that he’s a bit of a dick, as he sent Kim off to make him coffee after she’d been working all night.

So…did Jimmy sink the family business? Even Charles Sr. didn’t think so. The only word we have to go on is Chuck’s, and Chuck works hard to poison others’ views of Jimmy. He did it with Howard, he did it with Rebecca…and now he’s doing it with Kim.

There are two possible reasons for that, and they’re opposites; either Jimmy is truly a dangerous individual that people should be warned against, or Jimmy’s a good guy at heart and Chuck is refusing to let him get ahead.

I think there’s far more evidence in the show for the latter. And that, honestly, is what makes Better Call Saul a completely separate experience from Breaking Bad. In Breaking Bad, Saul was never a tragic character. In Better Call Saul he’s tragic on a weekly basis.

As with last week’s episode, though, “Rebecca” isn’t really about Jimmy. At least, not directly or primarily. Last week was Mike’s story. This week it’s Kim’s. And while I’ll get to Kim a moment, I do want to say that I’m slightly disappointed that Jimmy got sidelined this week. In “Gloves Off” that was okay, because his story was just spinning its wheels for a bit, and Mike had the more interesting development.

In “Rebecca,” though, Jimmy’s bristling tether to Erin — his unofficial, Davis & Main-appointed babysitter — has some real and very interesting potential. This isn’t a story that I want to see sidelined, and I hope we get more of it in the weeks to come. Jessie Ennis was a delight, and serving as Jimmy’s anthropomorphized ankle monitor gives her a narrative purpose that is bursting with both comic potential and comic tension. I don’t think she should be in the driver’s seat forever, but I think it could either lead to a great arc of its own or add some unexpected complications to his current arc.

Anyway, yes, “Rebecca” is actually about Kim, but Rebecca and Kim have a fair bit in common. They each receive a lecture about Jimmy from Chuck. They each fail to see, understand, or at least acknowledge what Chuck is warning them about. (Though this is likely to change for Kim and may eventually have changed with Rebecca.) They’re both being held back, potentially, by an underperforming colleague.

In both of those cases, Chuck encourages them to cut that colleague out of their lives. To move forward without them. To refuse to be held back. And yet we know — better than any other character knows — the loneliness Chuck faces as a direct result of living by that rule.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad rule. And it’s certainly not to say that Jimmy — specifically Jimmy — shouldn’t be let go of once he becomes an undue burden.

The only question is, has he?

Kim’s talk with Chuck is great, largely due to the acting but also due to the deft writing, which sees the entire conversation spring from a question Chuck doesn’t even answer. Kim asks if she has a future at Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Chuck clearly has some insight here, but prefers to enlighten her about something else. Even if she realizes she’s been deflected — and she probably does — she clearly believes Chuck has a point.

We talked a bit in the last review about Jimmy being constantly reminded of his place in the universe, being shoved back down whenever he tries to climb up. “Rebecca” shows us that it’s not just Jimmy; it’s Kim, too. Hell, it might be everyone.

This week Kim works alone, on her own time, foregoing lunch and sleep, just to find, of her own initiative, a client or a case large enough for Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill to remember her value.

…and she does it.

Her hard work pays off. For the firm, at least. It doesn’t pay off for her, as she receives the same kind of fuck-you Howard gave Jimmy way back at his party in season one’s “RICO.” She’s in exile. She’s there because that’s where the people with power put her. And while she may not be there forever, it’s sure as hell not her decision when she’ll be welcomed back.

If it happens, it will be on somebody else’s terms.

No hard feelings, right? Now get back to work.

It’s a devastating moment. Almost as devastating as her treatment of Jimmy earlier in the episode, when he reaches out to her with a potential legal solution to the retaliation she’s facing…and she pushes him away. He’s willing to help, and she declines the help. Which is when he tells her he’s willing to leave his job for her.

…and she declines that, too.

In fact, she doesn’t even think it’s much of a gesture. And who can blame her? The Davis & Main opportunity was narrative convenience more than anything, right? It kept Jimmy employed, kept the show going, gave him a chance to show us how he works in more respectable environs…but, ultimately, it’s there to be thrown away. Right? We know he doesn’t work there forever. Hell, we know what he knows and what Kim knows: it’s a job for him to throw away when throwing it away will advance the story.

Except that later in this episode, he realizes that that’s not what it is at all. He bumps into a fellow attorney from his old days as a public defender, and slowly, reluctantly, gets drawn into a conversation that forces him to realize just how lucky he is. Just how important this job is. Just how much of a gift he’s been given.

And he was going to throw it away?

…well…maybe not anymore.

Is that some indication of the price of Jimmy’s soul? Career advancement over chivalry? Perhaps, but we do get a very clear idea of the price of Mike’s, as Hector Salamanca offers him $5,000 to take the rap for the gun that was found on the site of his and Tuco’s scuffle.

It turns out that Mike’s clean solution wasn’t clean at all…which was sort of the theme of Breaking Bad as well. Every action has consequences. You will deal with them for many episode, or even for many seasons. And you’ll always be able to trace every terrible development to the one that came before, right down the line, all the way back to the first time that you decided to do something you knew — you already knew — you shouldn’t have done.

The best laid plans of Mike and men, etc. etc.

We have some sense of where this will go — where it must go — but it has the potential to offer a few surprises, especially since we know that the Hector we meet here is not at all the Hector we will later encounter in Breaking Bad. Mike isn’t the only character in for a dramatic change.

I liked “Rebecca.” In some ways it felt like a lesser episode, but it had enough to recommend it, and my biggest complaint is that we didn’t get more of one plot thread. Hell, we might get more of it next week, so it may not even matter.

But I will say that it’s a bit odd that, this far into the show, Mike’s story and Jimmy’s still don’t really overlap.

I’m not complaining, but I do think it’s fair to say that this is only something the show can get away with due to our familiarity with Breaking Bad. On its own merits, Better Call Saul can usually hold its own, but this is a case in which it simply doesn’t. Without the parent show, there’d be no real excuse for a weekly drama series in which two separate protagonists bumble around for seasons on end in almost exclusively unrelated adventures.

It’s the one area of Better Call Saul in which the seams are showing. And they’re probably only showing because just about everything else the show does, it does perfectly.

Hey everybody! Better Call Saul is back with a whole new season, and I’m here to…

…wait. We’re still on season two? Crap.

Yes, back when I was reviewing Better Call Saul in more or less real time, I was still reviewing ALF. And there was a new season of The Venture Bros. And…basically…one of those shows had to forgo coverage, if there was any way I was going to retain my sanity. I ended up choosing — more or less by circumstance — Better Call Saul. There was no right answer, really, but I’ve regretted it ever since.

The show deserves respectful coverage. Prompt coverage may not be as important, but the problem is that I never caught back up with it. I moved on…and then didn’t go back. Until now, at least, when my Facebook wall is flooded with people crowing about Gus Fring being in season three and I figure, well, I might as well catch up with my spoilers.

Part of the reason it was hard to go back, though, was this episode. Not that it was bad. It wasn’t. But the problem was that I watched it. I didn’t have time review it, but I watched it. And after enough time had passed that I couldn’t review it from memory, I didn’t feel very compelled to go back and watch it again.

Shows like Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad are a bit like that. You don’t watch an episode over and over. You enjoy one, and then you enjoy the next, and then the one after that. None of this is to say that the episodes don’t deserve multiple viewings, but I will say that, with some exceptions, multiple viewings don’t benefit them in isolation. They are parts of longer arcs, longer stories, longer passages. Every episode functions like a middle chapter. It keeps the momentum of what came before, and pushes the story just far enough ahead that you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time.

Drop back into one episode you’ve seen — just one, alone — and it feels like a strange excerpt. It almost feels wrong, like eavesdropping on the middle of a conversation.

“Gloves Off” is unquestionably a middle chapter. It makes no secret of that. It picks up where last week left off, and it makes you want to dive right into whatever next week will bring. And yet, it does something interesting: instead of ending the episode with a moment that suggests narrative progress, it opens with it.

That’s not something I’m sure I’ve seen before on this show or on Breaking Bad. Yes, we’ve certainly had plenty of episodes that opened at the end, with the episode itself being a kind of flashback establishing how we got to whatever chaos we’ve just seen. To use a thematically fitting example, there’s “Grilled,” which opens with Jesse’s car bouncing up and down in the aftermath of a gunfight. But this is the first time, I think, that we’ve opened with a major evolution for a character.

In this case, it’s Mike. And what I mean by “major evolution of a character” is that it’s not a question of how his face got bloodied and bruised; it’s a question of how he became the guy who sits alone in the dark, obviously battered, lifting his fist in silent triumph. Sure, we wonder what he’s proud of, but mainly we wonder about the change. About the seeming rewiring of who he is. Mike has been so calm and collected across two shows now* that whenever we see the veneer crack, we know to pay attention. Last season it cracked in a tragic way in the great “Five-O.” Now it cracks in celebration.

That’s Better Call Saul‘s way of saying “listen up.”

This means something.

Mike is changing.

The ensuing episode tells us what happened to him, but, more importantly, it tells us what happened inside of him.

But we’ll get to that. This is the Jimmy McGill show; not the Mike show.

Or, rather, it’s Better Call Saul, and “Gloves Off” has a moment of great fun teasing that inevitable change of name for our protagonist. Honestly, isn’t it pretty wonderful that we’re rolling cleanly through season two without the guy’s name even being Saul?

This week Jimmy attempts to seduce Chuck with the offer to abandon his legal ambitions forever. “No more Jimmy McGill, esquire. Poof. Like he never existed.” It’s a cute moment, and I honestly wonder how long they’ll be able to drag out the Jimmy era of Saul’s life. Personally, I’d be kind of happy if it lasted as long as the show does.

The conversation happens because Chuck and Howard seem to have taken Jimmy’s ill-conceived commercial out on Kim, and there’s a lot at play here. (I say “seems to have” because Chuck, unconvincingly, attempts to paint the entire situation as Howard’s decision.) There’s Kim’s nearly blind loyalty to Jimmy, and her obvious questioning of what it’s done to her career. There’s Jimmy’s clear (and almost touching) protectiveness toward Kim, to the point that he’s willing to back out of his career entirely just to put her back where she was.

And, of course, there’s our hero’s relationship with Chuck, which continues to be utterly devastating and painful to watch. (It may even be more painful than Mike’s physical beat-down that ends the episode.) I’m looking forward to seeing just how deeply this show digs into their dynamic, which is believably complex, sad, and toxic. Watching “Gloves Off” the second time I’m able to appreciate how fired up Jimmy is when he arrives at Chuck’s house…only to drop the offense entirely when he sees his brother is suffering.

He brings him water. He brings him an extra space blanket. He sits with him all night. When the morning comes, he makes him tea.

…at which point Chuck takes the offense, and unloads on Jimmy instead.

It’s a deeply sad turn, and one that we know we haven’t seen the last of. Jimmy has always been and always will be the little brother. The fuckup. The one who can’t be trusted…in spite of whatever he achieves, whatever his investigations turn up, however well his plans turn out.

His is a path downward. He’s reminded of that every time he tries to move up. For obvious reasons, it’s always the most painful when it’s his brother pressing him down.

And, sure enough, his commercial was a success. The phones are ringing constantly. A very small financial investment netted Davis & Main, Jimmy’s new employers, a boatload of Sandpiper clients.

But Jimmy didn’t go about it the right way. He went over peoples’ heads. He made a decision that his employers wouldn’t have made. And that’s inexcusable. Throughout the episode there’s a lot of talk of reputation, which clearly means little to Jimmy. He doesn’t care how Davis & Main looks; he cares about the work that they do. The strong implication is that Davis & Main — like Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill — care about how they look. That’s what made all the difference in last season’s “Hero”; sure, Jimmy may have done the work, but he comes off like “the kind of lawyer guilty people hire.”

Jimmy’s playing a game of appearances as though it’s a game of merit. The tragedy isn’t that he loses…the tragedy is that there’s no room for him, and he eventually embraces the flaw he’s been told he had all along. He becomes Saul Goodman.

Mike’s story also has some nice playfulness. There’s the return of Krazy-8, who would eventually be Walt’s first deliberate murder victim in Breaking Bad. There’s Mike taking a “trophy” from a defeated Tuco, just as Hank will eventually do. And there’s Mike warning Nacho that if he bumps off Tuco, it’ll draw Salamancas like flies…which is indeed what happens when Tuco is bumped off in that other show.

But it’s not a playful story overall. It’s the story of how retired-policeman Mike becomes hyper-competent-fixer Mike. And that’s what he’s celebrating on his couch at the beginning…covered in his own blood…face swollen…Tuco’s charm in his fist. He’s celebrating the fact that he did something his way…and that his way worked. He’s suspected that he could do this before — for the memory of his son, for his daughter-in-law, for his granddaughter — but now he knows.

And he can do it, for now at least, without being blood thirsty. Without stirring up undue trouble. Without taking lives. He can do it on his terms…which is all he asks.

…and which will also lead him down a much darker path when those terms are forbidden to him, one by one.

In theory, his non-fatal solution to the Tuco problem might set the stage for the mercy he shows Walt several times over in Breaking Bad. He let Tuco live, and still solved the problem. In Breaking Bad he lets Walt live…but things go a bit differently there.

His confrontation with Tuco here is an easy highlight of both shows. It’s a perfectly tense several minutes of television, with Mike working Tuco effortlessly. Playing the dim old man when he knows it’ll anger him the most, shifting into antagonism when he needs to keep Tuco’s ire up, and then shifting right back into playing the helpless elder to keep Tuco from suspecting anything.

It’s a masterful, incredible scene…one that makes you admire both Mike’s cleverness and Better Call Saul‘s. And I have to admit there’s a fantastic, unspoken narrative brilliance in the ultimate solution. When the initial plan involves Mike killing Tuco, the recurring concern is how Mike will get away unseen. The brilliance is that the plan Mike ultimately comes up with turns that problem into its own solution: he leans into the fact that he will be seen, and we get a much better, much stronger, much more intelligent sequence because of it.

We never do see what happens when Jimmy shows up late to work, or if Kim gets wished back out of the cornfield, or what the next inevitable cloud of fallout from the commercial turns out to be…at least not this week. But that’s okay, because it’s just a middle chapter. And nothing that might have happened in those threads could have compared to Nacho’s weighty, episode-ending query:

“You went a long way to not pull that trigger. Why?”

Mike doesn’t answer him, and so we don’t get the answer, either.

But I think we all know the answer.

The answer is that he went the long way around to see if he could do things his way. Not Nacho’s, not Tuco’s, but his own.

And he can.

And one of modern television’s best characters is born.

Note: I want to point out that I didn’t just stop reviewing Better Call Saul; I stopped watching it as well. Yes, I saw “Gloves Off,” but after that…nothing. I wanted to wait, because I knew I’d be coming back to this series. And now, hey, I am back! So please steer clear of major story spoilers in the comments. For you, this season is almost a year old. But I’m watching it for the first time, and I hope you enjoy that these reviews will still retain their “by-the-episode” approach as opposed to one that looks backward with a greater sense of where these threads lead.

—–
* During my ALF reviews, I mentioned that Todd Susman, who appeared in the episode “Hide Away,” played the P.A. voice in both M*A*S*H and Futurama, making him one of very few people who got to play the same character in two of the best shows ever made. I think we can add Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk to that short list as well.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...