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

Better Call Saul is a great show, and “Witness” assuaged my quiet worry that it soon wouldn’t be.

This was among the most effective hours of television I think I’ve ever seen, maybe because of how effortlessly it pivots at about its midpoint from being one of the funniest episodes to being one of the most painful.

Most great television episodes do something very well. “Witness,” though, does two quite different things very well. It almost feels as though it’s two separate half hours that just happened to air back to back, which in this very specific case I mean as an enormous compliment.

“Witness” isn’t aimless or confused; “Witness” is artful and layered. It isolates the main components of its delicate comedy-drama balance, which allows each half to breathe, to function, to hit us hardest.

I loved this episode.

So why was I afraid I wouldn’t?

Well, as you know if you’ve been reading these reviews, I’m a day or so behind on new episodes. I don’t have cable, so I buy the seasons through iTunes. I don’t get to watch a new Better Call Saul until everyone else has already seen it.

Potentially this could end in me getting pretty majorly spoiled. I don’t mind spoilers, per se, and I think the panic and offense they engender is more or less totally unfounded, but I still like to go into things knowing as little as possible ahead of time.

So, what do I do? I tell my readers — and my friends — that I’m behind. I ask them politely not to spoil anything for me. And because I have excellent readers and friends, they don’t spoil anything for me. I get to experience things fresh. I don’t even know ahead of time if an episode is any good, and I appreciate that. I asked for a small gesture of respect, and everyone’s given it to me.

…except for AMC.

That frustrates and worries me. I’ll get to the worry bit in a moment, but I’m sure you can guess why it’s frustrating.

I don’t like to know what’s coming next. I don’t think it ruins the experience, but it does change it. Watching a show with only your own guesses as to what’s coming is a different experience from watching it knowing what’s coming, and anticipating it.

Wouldn’t it have been better, in a word, if Gus Fring’s reappearance had been kept mum? Wouldn’t the slow reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign been more thrilling? Wouldn’t the artful lack of focus on the man as he swept the floor behind Jimmy felt more purposeful?

I ask not to be spoiled because I want to enjoy the show more, but the network airing the show and the people making the show can’t shut up about it. Fring is coming back. Fring will return in season three. Fring will be back early in the season. Don’t forget; tonight is the night Fring returns. Unscramble the first letters of season two’s titles and they spell BEND OVER HERE FRING COMES AGAIN.

Hitchcock famously wouldn’t allow late seating when Psycho was in theaters, and he personally asked audiences not to share plot details with those who hadn’t seen it. If the Better Call Saul marketing team were in charge of that film, the trailers would have provided a precise timestamp, letting you know exactly when you’d need to show up to see Norman Bates in his mother’s dress.

Two immediate points of comparison, I think, prove the rule. The first would be the legitimate surprise appearance of Tuco at the end of this show’s very first episode. I was a night behind then, as well, and nobody spoiled it. When he stuck a gun in Jimmy’s face, I felt the shock. Had I known he was coming I could have still enjoyed it, but that initial rush would have been replaced with something less…thrilling.

Then there’s this episode’s other surprise emissary* from Breaking Bad: Francesca. No promotional materials spoiled her return that I saw, and so, ironically, her appearance had infinitely more weight than the (clearly more important) arrival of Gus Fring.

I have to admit, I never expected to be so happy to see Francesca again. Not that I disliked her in Breaking Bad at all; I think she just didn’t stand out as a singular character there. Watching her get her feet wet — and develop the sad loyalty to Jimmy that will keep her by his side through a name change and the ultimate dissolution of his career — makes me very excited to have her back. There’s a journey there that I didn’t expect I’d ever care to see, and now my mind is reeling with possibilities.

Also, at this point, can Huell and Kuby be far behind? Not that I’m in a rush to get anywhere (Better Call Saul‘s glacial pace is genuinely its greatest asset) but I’ll be very happy to see them again.

Now let me frustrate you by framing much of what I just celebrated as a concern.

“Witness” — prior to air — worried me because I don’t want Better Call Saul to become Breaking Bad. Having Tuco or Krazy-8 pop up is fine. Hell, bring in more characters whenever there’s a natural and compelling reason for them to be there. I don’t even care if folks pop up just for the novelty of it, as the Cousins seemed to last season.

But by folding these characters into the proceedings — by making them important to this show, to what happens, to the stories being told — we blur the lines between Better Call Saul and its predecessor. And that’s not fair to Better Call Saul.

We had Saul and Mike, of course. Those two, from episode one, were to be our parallel leads. And that’s okay. Because otherwise, the important characters were all new. Kim. Chuck. Howard. Nacho. Any number of new clients, flames, and foils. Better Call Saul occupied the same universe, but charted different territory. It was its own experience, and it could toss a saucy wink at its parent series whenever it damned well pleased; Better Call Saul would still live or die on its own merits.

…until it decides that, no, it won’t.

If it decides to make Hector a major character, it’s a little more Breaking Bad. If it decides to make Gus a major character, it’s a little more Breaking Bad. If it brings back Ted and Hank and Uncle Nazi, it’s a little more Breaking Bad.

And Better Call Saul deserves so much more than that. It deserves independent appraisal. Over the course of two seasons and change it’s earned independent appraisal. Bob Odenkirk is doing incredible work as Jimmy McGill, and it’s work that is entirely distinct from his work as Saul Goodman. It’s a different character. It’s a unique performance. It’s nuanced and impressive in a way that Saul Goodman — as great as he was — was not.

Rhea Seehorn is, on a weekly basis, the best thing on television. Michael McKean is an unexpectedly impressive and heartbreaking dramatic presence. Dave Porter, the composer of both shows, regularly makes the most of Better Call Saul‘s long, wordless stretches, filling his sonic canvas with compositions that in themselves tell the story, hand over fist outdoing his already great work on Breaking Bad.

In short, Better Call Saul is something wonderful…and it’s painful to see it seemingly want to become something else…something that’s already been and gone…something we’ve already seen. I don’t want the marketing to be all about Gus and Los Pollos Hermanos, because those things don’t belong to Better Call Saul. Those belong to Breaking Bad. And, frankly, I’d rather spend time here.

I worried about how much Gus dominated discussions about the show, because I don’t want to lose Jimmy to Saul. Not yet. Not when we’re still telling what I truly believe is an important story about these characters. Do we really need to carve out more of its runtime for those whose stories we already know?

That might also be why the return of Francesca doesn’t worry me. Or why the hypothetical return of Huell and Kuby doesn’t worry me. Those aren’t stories we know. We met the characters, but never got more than a rough sense of who they were. There’s a lot to learn.

How much more is there to learn about Gus?

“Witness” doesn’t answer that. At least not directly. But it does reassure us, and it does so by its sheer quality. Better Call Saul can still be great, can still be unique, can still be independently brilliant…even if it is saddled more and more by the weight of the legendary show that came before.

I’m still not convinced we needed Gus back. But I think I am convinced that Better Call Saul is going to retain its identity, and not become The Young Chicken Man Chronicles.

Anyway, some smaller thoughts on the episode itself, rather than what it does or doesn’t suggest for the future of the series as a whole.

I had no idea last week what Chuck’s plan was, but a friend of mine guessed it beat for beat. Great job, Keith! I’m an idiot!

I honestly thought that Ernesto hearing the tape was accidental, but my friend saw it as deliberate from the start. And, sure enough, he also predicted that the plan was to catch Jimmy breaking and entering to get it back. I have to admit, I’m impressed at how well Better Call Saul laid those tracks when I wasn’t looking; Chuck already knew Ernesto was loyal to Jimmy, and all he really had to do was get the boy worried. The rest of the plan unfolded naturally from there, and that was a pretty beautiful thing.

And I loved Kim demanding money from Jimmy so that she’d be his lawyer and everything they discuss would be confidential. That’s a trick Saul later pulls on Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad. (Funnily enough, in the episode “Better Call Saul,” if I remember correctly.) It’s interesting to see something Jimmy learned from a true friend who cares for him and his safety eventually becomes a tool in his arsenal of shysterism.

Mike’s story doesn’t go far this time, but the fact that he teams up with Jimmy just serves as a reminder of how much we benefit as viewers when these two actually share screentime. Jimmy’s silent — and clumsy — surveillance inside the restaurant was a setpiece of perfect comic tension. Ditto Mike kicking him out of the car when an amped-up Jimmy wants to keep playing spy.

Hell, even the initial suggestion that Mike and Jimmy might work together led to a huge laugh. (“This one really don’t want to talk about Cracker Barrel.”)

Better Call Saul has life in it. A real life. A life worth exploring.

And I hope, deeply, that it does a better job of escaping the shadow of its celebrated older brother than Jimmy does.

* Okay, we saw Victor as well, and that was cool, but since we knew Gus was coming, that didn’t feel as surprising. Once we know Dorothy is skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, is anyone surprised that Toto shows up, too?

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Mabel” (season 3, episode 1)

A lot of discussion about Better Call Saul centers around Chuck. Specifically, it’s the question of whether or not he’s right. In his thoughts, in his behavior, in the way with which he wields his authority.

This is a question that speaks volumes about how effectively muddled the show has kept its ethics. After all, we’re now three seasons in; shouldn’t we know whether this guy deserves our spite or our pity?

To be fair, many viewers already know their own answers. But the discussion is kept alive by the artful way in which Better Call Saul toys with its audience. We’ve seen Chuck in various states by this point…sometimes deserving of scorn, and sometimes deserving of sympathy. But the show never lets us land decisively on either side. We may wish to see Chuck one way or another, but we’re left instead to circle, without a conclusive answer.

We ended last season with Chuck tricking his brother into confessing a felony, which is a shitty thing to do, for sure. But that felony was committed against him by his brother, so…y’know. There’s that. What we see — in fact, what we’re explicitly told — is that this isn’t over. Jimmy may be willing to walk amicably away, but Chuck is not. McGill v McGill is a battle that will continue to be fought, even if it never sees a courtroom.

Part of the reason “Mabel” keeps us circling is that it doesn’t share with us Chuck’s plan. It was a gutsy move, from a writing standpoint, to bring Howard so early into the episode to unravel whatever legal fantasies Chuck might have entertained about the tape’s value. In fact, the universal assumption after season two (helped along by some promotional photographs for season three) was that this was going to lead directly to Jimmy being arrested.

The writers of Better Call Saul let a character explain to us in no uncertain terms why that won’t happen, though, as their way of kicking off this batch of episodes. That doesn’t renege on a promise; rather, it makes a bigger one. “You thought Jimmy would go to jail?” it asks. “Oh, if only we went so easy on him…”

Frankly, I have no idea what Chuck has planned at this point. If any commenters have a guess, I’d love to hear it. (I’m incapable even of guessing. I’m completely in the dark.) But I’m willing to trust in the show. This far along, it has yet to dissuade me from doing so.

So, let’s talk about Chuck. Let’s remember who he is. All of who he is. We don’t know his plan, but we know the man. What do we think of him?

Chuck is in an odd position, narratively. By rights we should be siding with Jimmy, as he’s our focal character. That doesn’t mean that we need to see everything he does as the “right” thing to do, but it does mean that his decisions should weigh the most heavily on us. When his forerunner Walter White did something terrible — as he did almost weekly — we didn’t leap to his defense, but we did hold him accountable in ways we didn’t hold other characters.

A timely point of comparison would be Gus Fring. When Gus did something terrible, we had a number of responses. We’d be surprised, frightened, worried, sad…something along those lines. But we didn’t worry for the state of his soul. We didn’t want him to learn from his mistakes and make a better choice next time. We didn’t care or hope that he’d eventually change for the better and extricate himself from this mess, simply because he wasn’t our focal character. We cared about those things for Walt (even if it was only for the safety of other characters), because he was.

Here, Jimmy McGill is our focal character, and Chuck is not. So Chuck can do whatever Chuck does, and it shouldn’t affect us beyond the way in which it impacts Jimmy.

…except that we already know where Jimmy ends up. We already know who — and what — he becomes. We have no reason to worry about the state of his soul, because we’ve spent a lot of time with him soulless. Whether or not Chuck wins, we sure as hell know Jimmy loses.

As a result, Better Call Saul can do a lot of things with Chuck. It can humanize him in a way that Breaking Bad was unable to humanize any character from its roster of adversaries. It can explore him in a fairly liberating way, as Chuck is neither there to be conquered nor to conquer. Either may happen, but neither guides his existence as a character.

And so Chuck gets to be Chuck. A person. A human being with complicated desires. A pitiful genius. A brilliant asshole. A cruel hero. A loving bastard.

We’ve seen Chuck break down, which is sad. But we’ve also seen him pretend to break down in order to manipulate others, which casts doubt on previous moments of weakness. We’ve seen Chuck laid low by (what is surely) a mental health condition, which endears us to him. But we’ve also seen him push the condition aside entirely, with no consequence, which suggests that his affliction may be more conscious than he’s let on.

In “Mabel” specifically we see him instruct his brother like a child about how to remove duct tape, which is dickish. But we also saw Jimmy ripping varnish off the wall when left to his own devices, so maybe it was necessary. Later Chuck shared fond memories with his little brother, relishing sweet details of their childhood, which reminds us of the man inside the monster. But then we also see him actively crush the conversation for the sake of reminding Jimmy that he’s well and truly fucked.

“Your brother is one world-class son of a bitch,” Howard says. He’s speaking of one McGill, but he could as well be speaking of the other.

My girlfriend recently caught up on the show, and at the end of season two she pointed something out to me. Sure, Jimmy stole the Mesa Verde account from Chuck…but Chuck stole it first. They each made an underhanded gambit to steal what was not rightly theirs. They each did it for selfish reasons. They each did it with very little (if any) care for the effects it would have on the actual client.

But, she pointed out, Chuck knew how to do it within the law. Jimmy — younger, more impulsive, less experienced — did not. That was the difference. Jimmy stole it anyway, but without the legal safeguards Chuck knew he could rely on.

Who is worse? Is it either? Is there even a villain in this situation? If Jimmy were not our focal character — if we didn’t already love him from what we remember of a completely different show — would Chuck be a bad guy? Or would he just be…a guy?

I want to hate Chuck, on some level. I don’t want him to leave the show or get killed or any silly nonsense like that; what I want is to be able to look at him and say, “That world-class son of a bitch.” But I can’t. Because he’s a person. And as hard as he comes down on Jimmy, he doesn’t do it without reason.

He holds Jimmy back. That’s bad. But he’s seen Slippin’ Jimmy when there was nothing holding him back. So maybe he has a good reason.

He actively blocks Jimmy from assuming authority. That’s bad. But when Jimmy was given some degree of authority over the family business, the business sank. So maybe he has a good reason.

He doesn’t believe in Jimmy’s ability to practice the law with honesty and integrity. That’s bad. But now that Jimmy’s struck out on his own and he isn’t acting with honesty or integrity…you get the point.

We circle. We circle endlessly. Our opinion of Chuck — as a person, not as a character — gnaws its own tail.

He’s a shit, but he’s a shit for a reason.

For now.

Eventually, that cycle will break.

Either Chuck will go further than Jimmy actually deserves, and become the bad guy, or Jimmy will prove himself bad enough that we start to believe poor Chuck should have gone further.

I don’t hate Chuck. I understand him. I wish he’d back off, because I also understand and don’t hate Jimmy.

I want Jimmy to be able to shine. I want him to be able to live up to whatever he knows, in his heart, he can be. I want Jimmy to survive to transition to Saul Goodman. In other words, I want what I already know, conclusively, I cannot have.

Ultimately Chuck will be proven right. That’s what our black-and-white flash-forwards tell us at the top of every season. Chuck is correct.

But did he foresee a dark future? Or did he will one to life?

Season three is poised to dig fairly deeply into that question. But by the time it’s over, I have to guess that it’ll still be difficult to hate Chuck outright. He’s not a bad guy, as far as I can tell. He’s just one factor in another man’s inevitable downfall.

We’ll talk a bit about Mike next week, so I won’t muddy the waters (ahem) by bringing him up now, at the end of the review. But I will say that the incredible, long, almost silent scene of Kim laboring over a semicolon — or a period, or an em dash — is one of the most realistic portrayals of writing I’ve ever seen.

I’ll talk more about her next week, too. I’ve spent enough time here detailing one factor in Jimmy’s downfall, and I don’t think the poor guy can handle another.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Klick” (season 2, episode 10)

In many ways, I think the best way to review the final episode of season two is to refer back to my review of the final episode of season one.

Season one was, I felt, largely brilliant. It got off to a bit of a sputtering start, but it didn’t take long to carve out a distinct and rewarding identity of its own. Its supporting cast got their chances to shine, we developed Jimmy McGill as a character distinct from Saul Goodman and therefore one worthy of separate study, and it seemed less and less fair to view the show in the shadow of Breaking Bad.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was often great. And Rhea Seehorn, a relative newcomer, proved herself to be the most valuable member of a cast that included old pros like Bob Odenkirk, Michael McKean, and Ed Begley, Jr. In short, Better Call Saul had promise. That was no surprise. What was surprising was how quickly it fulfilled that promise.

Then came the final episode of the season, “Marco,” which wasn’t exactly the best thing the show could have done. Most disappointing was its ending, in which Jimmy turns down a position at Davis & Main so that he can hop into a phone booth and emerge moments later as Saul Goodman.

It was oddly graceless, and almost insulting to a viewer who would have spend the previous nine episodes and change invested in Jimmy’s story. “Anyway, I’m Saul now, so forget all that.”

The show deserved better. Here’s what I said about that in my review:

Jimmy checks his messages and finds that he has clients — actual people for whom he is doing actual good, and who pay him actual money — waiting for him, and it feels like a nice moment of awakening for the character. [Kim] tells him that he stands a good chance of being hired on at another law firm…and hands us a great setup for where season two can go.

But ah, the Sickle! Jimmy comes home, stands in a parking lot for a little bit, then says “Fuck it, I’ll be a bad guy!” It’s an unconvincing reversal, to say the least, and it again feels so effortful. It’s a forced conclusion that speeds us toward Jimmy’s eventual transition into Saul, which works against the quiet, tragic slowness we’ve known all season. […] With the high highs of the previous episodes still so strongly in mind, I find it hard to believe that that’s where we actually ended things.

[…] A far more intriguing end to season one would have been Jimmy getting hired on at [Davis & Main]. He could spend “Marco” doing largely the same things, coming to largely the same conclusion as he comes outside of that church. He decides that he can do this, and sets out to make a name for himself at a reputable firm.

…at which points he finds it extremely difficult, makes an ass out of himself, and despite his best efforts keeps getting beaten back to the man who will eventually give up and become Saul.

That could have been a great series of episodes. It would have proven to him that he couldn’t handle what he expected to handle. It would have given Chuck’s “chimp with a machine gun” concern some retroactive weight, as Jimmy fails to live up to the sacred practice of law.

I’m not saying that I know the direction of this show better than anyone else does, but I do know that Kim’s arrangement floods my mind with possible storylines, whereas “I’m Saul Goodman, and you’re not! G’night everyone!!” doesn’t.

Forgive the long quote, but its length is deliberate: doesn’t season two seem like it addressed that concern specifically?

Not that I suspect anyone involved with the show read my reviews, much less took my criticisms to heart when working on the next batch of episodes. But I do think that my concerns must have been shared by at least someone on the writing staff. Why else would season two have begun with Jimmy literally undoing the decision he made at the end of season one? It must be because Davis & Main floods the mind with possible storylines, whereas ditching all that for Goodmanism just gives us the same stuff we already saw on Breaking Bad.

Funnily enough, the first episode of season two even shares my metaphor of a light switch:

I’ll watch season two, unquestionably. But Jimmy deciding he’s going to be a crooked shit is too easy. We already know where he ends up, so this isn’t surprising. It should have been something more momentous than flipping a light switch, which is what he might as well have done.

But now I’m just bragging.

My point is, Better Call Saul was excellent, but it had some issues…mainly at the very beginning and at the very end. Season two deliberately set out to correct those issues, even going so far as to have Jimmy immediately reverse the very decision that season one led to. It was course correction for both the character and the show, and as a result season two deposits us in much more interesting territory than season one did.

Season one said, “Here’s that guy you like.”

Season two now says, “Here’s these characters you’re still getting to know. And they’re fucked.”

We can get Mike’s story out of the way easily enough: it ends with a beginning. Instead of assassinating Hector with a sniper rifle, our aging hitman finds his view blocked. Some time passes (in an impressively tense scene, considering we know full well he doesn’t kill Hector) and then there’s the sound of Mike’s car horn. Someone’s wedged a stick against the steering wheel to set it off, and they’ve left a simple note: DON’T.

For starters, that’s pretty similar to the “Go home, Walter” phone call from “Thirty-Eight Snub,” which stops Walt from killing Gus. (Well…stops him for the time being.) That’s nice.

But the larger development here is that…well, it’s Gus, isn’t it? Gus tailed Mike, I guess, for some reason, and stopped him from killing Hector, I guess, for some reason. And he waited a long time to wedge that stick, too; if Mike’s view hadn’t have been blocked by Nacho, Hector could have been shot dead 150 times over. So…whatever. I’m not really sure what happened here, but FRING’S BACK so we know it’ll be worth waiting around to find out.

It’s Jimmy and Chuck, though, who are really in an interesting spot as the season ends. Chuck tricks Jimmy into confessing his felony, and records him doing so.

Okay. So, no, that doesn’t sound like much when you just see it in print like that.

What’s interesting is how Chuck plays it. How villainously he plays it.

He resigns from Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. As in, actually resigns. Howard isn’t in on the deception, but Chuck knows that if he quits, Howard will call Jimmy for some insight. And once Jimmy finds out Chuck quit, he’ll rush over to check on him. And once Jimmy shows up, Chuck will act a little extra crazy, to disarm Jimmy and make him feel bad. And once Jimmy feels bad, he’ll come clean…and Chuck will have it all on tape.

And it plays out exactly that way. Of course it does. Chuck’s the one who pieced together every detail of Jimmy’s crime, in sequence. He knows how this stuff works.

His deception is clever, and in line with what we know and suspect about the character. Sure. But what really makes it sting is that Jimmy spends a huge portion of this episode the same way he spent a huge portion of season one, and much of season two: caring for Chuck. Sitting with Chuck. Refusing to leave Chuck. Doing whatever is in Chuck’s best interest to keep him safe and healthy.

This is what Chuck takes advantage of. He knows Jimmy will drop everything the moment Chuck needs him. Chuck abuses his brother’s good side in order to prove his bad side.

That’s the weight of twenty good episodes making that cliffhanger work as well as it does.

And it also gives us some great insight into who Jimmy is. We know he’s flawed. We know he’s unscrupulous. We know he’s easily led astray.

But now we also know that he’d willingly commit a felony just to help the woman he loves.

And he’d confess to that felony just to make his sick brother feel better.

This leaves us with a lot of possible storylines for season three. This is not closure that needs to be reversed. This is one story becoming, in an instant, another story entirely.

There’s fallout to anticipate. There will be consequences. And, eventually, Jimmy will lose both Kim and Chuck as a result.

As a direct result? Probably not; the show hopefully has a few good years left in it.

But as a result of being Jimmy? As a result of being who Jimmy is?


And that’s already a more interesting story than Saul Goodman’s would have been.

Roll on, season three.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Nailed” (season 2, episode 9)

I’ll stand by my comments about the previous episode, but I think it’s only fair to say that “Nailed” absolutely pays off “Fifi” to a degree I never anticipated. This is one of the best episodes the show has done, and the fact that it comes on the heels of one of the weaker chapters goes a long way toward justifying my faith in Better Call Saul.

Sometimes, sure, things seem to go off the rails a bit. But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded.

Also reassuring is the way in which Jimmy’s plot and Mike’s plot comment thematically upon each other. Sure, they’re still conflicting protagonists in unrelated stories, but “Nailed” sees each of them going out of their way to interfere with somebody else’s business, turning an easy success for their rival into a failure, and claiming it for themselves.

In each case they’re even caught…except that there’s no evidence. Nothing can be proven. They’re guilty and everyone knows they’re guilty…but without proof, they get away with it.


In each case, there’s a price.

Mike learns that although his robbery of Hector’s driver netted him a quarter of a million dollars, it also resulted in an innocent death. While Mike hogtied the driver and got the loot without injuring anybody, Hector killed the “good Samaritan” who found the driver and freed him. No hard feelings…just couldn’t leave any witnesses. And, suddenly, Mike’s heist isn’t as clean as it should have been. He didn’t anticipate that consequence. A man doesn’t get to go home tonight…because of him.

And Jimmy…well…what does Jimmy learn? Almost nothing, aside from the fact that Chuck is a more tenacious adversary than he would have guessed. But he still pays a price…as he sees his brother become overwhelmed in the all-night copyshop and collapse…scoring himself what looks like a pretty awful headwound on the way down. He didn’t anticipate that consequence. His brother doesn’t get to go home tonight…because of him.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, maybe, but so much of “Nailed” comes down to its ending. (Or endings.) Like the great Breaking Bad episode “Dead Freight,” it’s not what happens during the story that matters. It’s what happens at the end, and how that recontextualizes what we’ve seen, and makes us question the value and wisdom of the choices that led the characters to that terminal tragedy.

In fact, I was actually reflecting a few days ago on how non-violent Better Call Saul is. For all of its resurrections of gangland characters we remember from Breaking Bad, we don’t get the weekly surges of violence. Of harrowing threats. Of the unexpected deaths of those we probably, at some point, assumed would be safe.

Better Call Saul has its moments of physical danger (“Mijo”) and outright battery (“Gloves Off”), but its tension comes primarily from something else. It comes from the tormented relationship between two brothers who love each other and yet would be slightly relieved if they found out the other had died peacefully in the night. It comes from Jimmy and Kim, and their extremely realistic, inevitably doomed feelings for each other. It comes from a natural con-man’s struggle to find a more professional, more respectful way forward.

In short, it comes from the characters. And, yes, I know, every human being who loves Breaking Bad can speak for hours on end about the development and exploration of its characters. Rightly so. But Breaking Bad also had a violent streak that kept its episodes thrilling. Sometimes disturbingly so. Yes, we wanted to see Walt and Jesse explore their relationship, but weren’t we also tuning in to see if either of them would make it out alive? Yes, we all adored Gus Fring and enjoyed spending time watching Giancarlo Esposito inhabit the character, but weren’t we also tuning in to see how our heroes would finally get him out of the way? Yes, we invested ourselves in the narrative spiral of a desperate man discovering that, at heart, he might be a villain…but if he retired from the drug trade three seasons from the show’s end and successfully cut all of those toxic associates out of his life, would we have kept watching?

What I’m trying to say is that the characters made Breaking Bad as great as it was, but they aren’t what made Breaking Bad. They are, by contrast, what makes Better Call Saul, which is why tonight’s brutal ending hits as hard as it does.

In Breaking Bad, a man hitting his head wouldn’t even register. (Unless it’s Ted…but I can’t imagine Chuck suffered a trauma as serious as that.) In Better Call Saul it’s enough to make you have to catch your breath. It’s terrifying.

And yet it wasn’t intentional violence.

There’s no threat of further violence to come.

It wasn’t gory.

It was just Chuck. Poor, conflicted, flustered Chuck…overwhelmed and frustrated by his brother’s treachery. Just Chuck. Chuck, who can’t take it anymore. And who is so overcome with anxiety that his knees buckle beneath him.

And he hits his head.

And it’s one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen on television.

It was brilliant, and it justified last week’s non-story entirely. Of course, I always have to complain about something, so I’ll just say that I do still feel that Jimmy’s alteration of the documents was a bit of a cheat. Yes, it halted the Mesa Verde proceedings and brought the client right back into Kim’s lap, but how did Jimmy know that would happen? Last week I figured the meddling would be spotted quickly (as it was) and dismissed as a clerical error (which it also was). The fact that it bumped Mesa Verde’s expansion back six weeks or so is fortunate for Jimmy, but it can’t have been something he should have banked on. It feels like a lucky break, and that was a lot of work for him to go through in the hopes that he might get lucky with the court being unable to grant the corrected request for expansion later the same day. Or the next day. Or even a few days later.

His gambit paid off, but I still don’t buy that it was a done deal the way Jimmy seemed to assume it would be a done deal.

Again, though, it led to “Nailed,” and that’s the important thing. Because “Nailed” had a great ending. And probably an even better middle…with a scene that was even more painful to watch than Chuck’s head injury.

It’s when Jimmy and Kim show up to Chuck’s house to pick up the Mesa Verde files. And Chuck tells Kim everything.

He figured it out. He knows exactly what Jimmy did, he knows when Jimmy did it, and he knows how Jimmy did it. He tells Kim every detail. And we know he’s right, because we watched it happen.

He lays it out for Kim. She listens. He interrupts Jimmy when he tries to deflect. He tells Kim exactly how dangerous a person Jimmy McGill is.

And after all that, after a long, dark, perfectly tense, impeccably acted, powerfully scripted scene like that…she dismisses him.

She tells Chuck he made a mistake and Jimmy had nothing to do with it. What’s more, she turns all of his disparaging remarks about Jimmy’s character back on him. Sure, Jimmy might be a conniving scumbag. But isn’t it Chuck who pressed him into that corner in the first place?

I actually made a few involuntary noises (which it’d be embarrassing to recount here) when she pushed back against Chuck. I was conflicted, and the show had done that to me masterfully. Chuck was right…but didn’t it feel good to see Kim lay into him? And the fact that she did so after Chuck made it clear that Jimmy did this as some kind of warped romantic gesture made it both more exciting and more heartbreaking. She was coming to Jimmy’s aid at precisely the wrong time. She was fighting for his innocence now that he was clearly, unquestionably guilty. She was acting as a character witness for the wrong McGill.

Then, of course, they get in the car and Kim punches Jimmy in the arm repeatedly. She didn’t believe Chuck at all.

She wanted to.

Of course she wanted to.

Why wouldn’t she want to?

But she didn’t. She knows better.

Jimmy is flawed. Jimmy is going to drag her down. Jimmy is going to be the reason all of this — however you’d like to define “this” — won’t work out.

But he’s Jimmy.

And on some level, against her better judgment, against the judgment of those she respects and admires, against her memories of how he’s held her back in the past, against all of the things she’s already witnessed him do

She loves him.

Kim loves him. I really believe that.

And I’d go to bat for Better Call Saul as having one of the most believably disarming love stories in TV history.

That’s what makes this such an effective show, at its core. And such a tragic one.

On Breaking Bad we always wondered who would die next. On Better Call Saul, we just follow this singular, sad, doomed relationship downward, toward its inevitable, unfortunate end.

In many ways, that’s actually scarier.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Fifi” (season 2, episode 8)

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.

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