Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

Better Call Saul, "Amarillo"

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy has a heart.

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 We see it when last week’s under-table flirtations are rescinded this time around…a rebuff so meaningful it causes Jimmy to double back and undo some of the good will he built up for himself, simply because she knew he built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

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

But only in a sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better Call Saul, "Cobbler"

We got a great episode this week, and that’s very nice. But the lateness of this review means I’ve had more time than usual to think about it, and I’ve found myself with a lot of questions.

That’s not at the expense of the show, or the episode, or anything, really. It’s just that at one point my thoughts came together…and then they had time to drift apart again. So I’ll run through my usual list of the things I enjoyed, but then I’d like to open a few things up to discussion. At this point I don’t think we have any correct or incorrect answers, but I’d definitely be curious as to other peoples’ thoughts.

Firstly, I recant my observation last week that our nebbish, budding drug dealer would be season two’s main client. While that’s still possible, it’s much less likely after the events of “Cobbler,” which see Jimmy clearing him of criminal suspicion by inventing a legal excuse for the man’s nervousness and secrecy. And that could well represent the end of that particular arc.

Which is okay; tying off that loose end doesn’t sacrifice any of that buildup so much as it allows it to feed other stories. Mike now knows where to find Nacho. Jimmy’s further implicated himself as Mike’s quasi-legal fixit man. And Kim — poor Kim — is second guessing, at least in the moment, the support she’s shown Jimmy through the years.

In fact, it’s easy to argue that the rush of confidence she gives him early in the episode is what leads to him accepting Mike’s ethically dubious proposal in the first place. A heartwarming moment flows gracefully and without interruption into a potentially very dark development. It’s a lovely illustration of the way comedy and gravity co-exist in this show, and I loved how easily and naturally that turn came.

Chuck’s temporary return to HHM was also handled brilliantly, with Jimmy’s immediate clench of anxiety when he saw the plastic tub being palpable and painful. It was a great moment, taking one of the sillier aspects of season one (by which I mean no disrespect) and bringing it back as an emotional punch for season two. Chuck’s arrival interrupts Jimmy’s speech…his confidence falters…the lights go out one by one around him.

I’m not sure exactly what Chuck’s motive was for returning. Clearly it was something to do with Jimmy, and he tries to pass it off later on as “bearing witness,” but doesn’t make it clear as to whether it’s witness to Jimmy’s ascent or tumble. From Jimmy’s perspective — the one with which the show aligns us in that scene — it was a dickish thing to do, whatever the motive, and seeing his brother again instantly knocks him off center.

…but Kim is there. Kim, who arranged to be there. Next to him. For him. She cares about him, she believes in him, and she knows what he’s capable of, even when he doubts it himself. And with a touch, she brings him back. It’s a sad and triumphant moment at once, and it both makes him feel better and more bitter. He does his best to blow off Chuck after the meeting, and then immediately agrees to help Mike in what he’s openly told will require him to recalibrate his ethics. Confidence and bitterness are a dangerous combination.

Both of this episode’s legal entanglements show what sets Jimmy apart: he’s willing to get his hands dirty. Just as he crawled around in a dumpster in last season’s “RICO,” and tracked the Kettlemens through the woods in “Nacho,” he’s willing to sit with every elderly Sandpiper resident and dig through their financial records seeking the evidence he needs. Lawyers operate cleanly, need to appear collected and respectable at all points, and send others to do their dirty work. Jimmy is used to the dirty work, and sees no such distinction…which allows him to build the case in ways other lawyers cannot. It also, of course, allows him to fabricate evidence by directing pie-sitting videos starring his client.

The same thing that could make Jimmy a great lawyer already, we know, makes him a criminal.

It was a solid episode, and we got to see more of Mike being Mike, which is always welcome. He’s the kind of character that can brutalize with a glance, and we definitely had our share of glances. His cool, unflustered confrontation with Nacho was a perfect, tense highlight of the show thus far. (Also very interesting: Nacho’s uncle is an honest businessman who respects his customers enough to talk them out of pricey options in favor of ones that would suit their vehicles better and save them money. It provided for a very interesting background commentary to his nephew’s dealings, and illustrates how rich a show we’re dealing with here.)

So, yes, “Cobbler” was great. But I have some questions.

Firstly, what is Chuck’s role on this show? It feels to me almost like his main arc was wrapped up at the end of season one, and while I’m not complaining about having Michael McKean pop up every few episodes, I do wonder what they intend to do with him.

Am I concerned? Not even slightly. But season one built up my expectations toward one thing, and then gave me something else. Here, I don’t know what expectations I have at all, unless it’s that he’ll fluster Jimmy now and again, which doesn’t seem like a rich narrative development to me.

Did Chuck outlast his utility? Or do you guys see something I’m not seeing yet? Again, I’m not writing him off…I’m just not sure where he’s going.

Secondly, the conversation with Kim at the end was fantastic, but only later did something occur to me. Yes, fabricating evidence is illegal. That makes sense to me, and it makes sense that Kim would react in exactly the way she did. But she was laughing at the rest of the story, and enjoying the anecdote. Which implies that she’s okay with actively lying to police officers with the purpose of interfering with their investigation.

Now, trust me, I’ve watched enough television that I’m aware of the grey area attorney characters walk constantly. It’s fine, to me, if Kim is okay with lying but not with falsifying evidence. There’s a point at which that distinction becomes less clear, but on its surface, I understand that.

My question is this: isn’t it still illegal to lie to an officer the way Jimmy did? Kim’s concern at least in part seemed to have to do with the trouble Jimmy could find himself in, but wouldn’t he already be in that trouble by virtue of having lied at all? He spun a very specific story to the police, which could be accepted or disproven just as the “evidence” could have been. Was he not already in trouble from the moment he started telling his story?

I don’t know. I don’t have a legal background, and I could be way off, but I’d be surprised if lying to police officers in that context was okay. And if it’s not okay, I think I buy Kim’s giddy enjoyment of the a little less. Is it more that she’s okay with all lying in the service of a client, but worried that the pie video specifically would make it easier for them to prove he’s lying?

I’m really not sure.

Those are logistical questions, though, and while I’d be interested in hearing peoples’ thoughts, neither of them are especially important to me.

Much more interesting is comparing the world of Better Call Saul to the world of Breaking Bad. In that latter show, we didn’t have to wait long to see blood being spilled, lives being taken, innocents in danger. Bad decisions in Breaking Bad were really bad decisions with really bad consequences…a theme that carried from the pilot to the very last episode.

In Better Call Saul, however, the stakes are lower. These characters are in danger of being lied to, misled, betrayed, taken advantage of, ripped off, intimidated, ridiculed. They’re not in danger of being strangled, gassed, gutted, stabbed, dissolved, blown up, shot.

And that interests me, because this character occupies both of those worlds. At one point, his decisions lead him from one degree of everyday consequence toward another. That’s Jimmy becoming Saul, yes, but it’s also one man choosing — for one reason or another — to open a Pandora’s Box of violence and danger.

And why would somebody choose this? To leave the smaller punishments behind in favor of the larger ones? To turn away from personal slights in favor of being kidnapped and held at gunpoint in the desert? To stop helping a small-time crook out of jam and start suggesting that big-time trouble makers be sent to Belize?

There’s an easy answer: the rewards are bigger as the stakes get higher. But something tells me it’s not as simple as that. That’s the reason for Jimmy becoming Saul, potentially, but not the reason for a man to willfully thrust himself into a more dangerous, potentially fatal, lifestyle.

More likely? By the time he makes that decision, he has literally nothing left to lose.

Remember that when he’s on the bed with Kim, and she’s wearing his University of American Samoa shirt. She warns him against going down a dark path…and we know he’ll do it. We know he’d lose her if he did.

But by the time he does, I don’t think she’ll even be around to lose.

Better Call Saul, "Switch"

Better Call Saul is back, and, with it, an ongoing question of — and struggle for — identity. It’s something that we all experience on some level. For our ethically grey protagonist, it’s an eternal, Sisyphean nightmare.

Saul Goodman was somebody. We remember him well from Breaking Bad, and the clear draw of Better Call Saul is the chance to learn his backstory. But very quickly this newer show become about something deeper, if not necessarily larger. It wasn’t a simple question of when a switch gets thrown to turn James M. McGill into Saul Goodman. In fact, as “Switch” and “Uno” both make clear, “Saul Goodman” isn’t even this character’s terminal point.

After Saul, he becomes somebody else. Before James M. McGill, he was Slippin’ Jimmy. Somebody becomes somebody becomes somebody becomes somebody.

We may never learn much more about his future than we see in these black and white flash-forwards, but they’re enough to help us contextualize what we’re watching; Better Call Saul isn’t one man’s journey from point A to point B. It’s one man’s journey from point E to F, with some glimpses of G and some suggestions of D and the possibility of much more to explore in both directions…to say nothing of the possible alternate paths that Jimmy closes off one by one.

Better Call Saul is about a man discovering who he is…over, and over, and over again. And we are reminded at the top of this hour that — though we know he’ll find it — his journey doesn’t stop there. For at least the third time in his life he will have to shed everything he’s become, and forge a new identity. It’s sad enough to know that Jimmy will become Saul. It’s sadder still to know he’ll then become an anonymous Cinnabon manager waiting quietly by a dumpster for someone to let him back in the building.

It’s a story whose tragedy is all the more effective because we feel it looming. Yes, there’s something at stake when Jimmy turns down an offer from Davis & Main, just as there’s something thrilling about seeing him with Kim, laughing like teenagers over the bathroom sink. But it means more because we already know where he ends up.

Every gain is meaningful, every moment of small triumph or fleeting happiness important, because we know it’s only a matter of time before gravity asserts itself, and he falls. Likewise, even the smallest tragedies — Kim not answering his calls, for instance — feel ominous.

I have to admit, I’m curious how long the show will keep us in McGill territory. It was a bit worrying to me that the first and last episodes of season one both went out of their way to give us very Saul-like promises, as though viewers would lose interest in his story otherwise, but Better Call Saul seems, on the whole, prepared to take its time. It’ll throw the switch now, just to see what happens, and throw it back again a moment later. Just…you know. For curiosity’s sake. The switch is there. Why not throw it?

It’s still too early to say much about the direction season two is likely to take, but we have a few indications of where things might go. The Jimmy and Kim relationship is the most promising aspect to explore, as there’s such a natural chemistry between them that it’s impossible not to become invested. And for now, at least, they keep each other balanced. She keeps him from flying too high, and he shows her how to have a little harmless fun.

Of course, we know that eventually she won’t be there to reign him in, and that his fun will get significantly less harmless, but that’s what makes it count now.

Their time is limited.

At some point, relatively soon, something terrible is going to happen to them.

And so a little bit of jokey flirtation in the bathroom or a stolen kiss by the swimming pool means that much more. Every moment of happiness is a subtraction from their total. They’re approaching zero. Each one matters.

The next is the unready drug dealer we met back in season one’s great “Pimento,” who fires Mike and strikes off on his own. I honestly doubted we’d see that character again, and the very fact that we did meant nothing good could be in store for him. Firing Mike just brought eventual tragedy nearer to us all, and the fact that his story was left open at the end of “Switch” means we may well have our “important” client for season two lined up.

Then, of course, there’s Jimmy’s new employer. With Ed Begley, Jr. playing his new boss I think it’s safe to say that development will stick around for a while, and, really, it could go in any number of directions. Jimmy’s had both flashes of competency and seductive moments of willful weakness. He’s passed up big paydays in the past for the sake of doing the right thing, but he promises Mike that he’ll never do that again…and reminds Kim that doing the right thing has gotten him nowhere. He could either climb the professional ladder a bit to make his fall that much more devastating, or hasten his descent into Goodmanism. There’s no chance of a positive outcome, but there’s a heck of a lot of potential.

The best thing about Better Call Saul is simply the time we spend with the characters. We have our funny moments, our sad moments, our touching moments, our painful moments, our exciting moments, but the real joy is watching Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Rhea Seehorn do their things.

We don’t need massive, weekly plot developments. We don’t need setpieces and reminders of Breaking Bad. We don’t need anything except time to enjoy the company of these impressive creations.

Yes, it’s fun to watch Jimmy bullshit a bullshitter (Ken, who was also one of Walter White’s earliest victims), but it’s just as fun to watch him gently paddle closer to the Ziplocked phone floating beside him. Yes, it’s fun to watch Jimmy lap cucumber water from a spigot, but it’s just as fun to watch him succumb immediately to the temptation of a mysterious light switch.

There’s mileage in these characters, as they are right now, and that’s why I would be perfectly happy to make it to season 9 of Better Call Saul before people stop referring to him as Jimmy McGill.

We’ve seen Saul. We’ve spent time with Saul. We know and understand and love Saul. Saul has a place to exist.

This is Jimmy’s chance to shine, in so many ways. It’s thrilling when he does. And it’s effective and terrifying when he considers the darkness.

I’d like to stay here as long as possible. Maybe Jimmy would, too. But Kim asks him if he has somewhere to go…and we already know he does.

Better Call Saul, "Marco"
I went back and forth about whether to review “Marco” on schedule. Something about it seemed to call out for more consideration than I could give it after only one viewing. So I decided to wait…and the next day, I found out that my grandmother passed away. Jimmy’s loss of an important person in his life overlapped with my own. By no means am I suggesting that this provided me with any useful insight…it was an interesting thing to have happened, and that was about it.

And that’s about what I can say about “Marco” as a whole, after much reflection. Closing off an extremely promising first season, “Marco” feels like a significant letdown. Not just on its own merits, but in terms of where we’ll be when we return for season two.

It’s not a bad episode of television by any means, but with the incredible strength of the previous seven episodes behind it (I still hold that the pilot was relatively weak), “Marco” feels…well, dead. And being as it contains Jimmy’s most emotional journey so far, a lot of answers about his past, and “the moment” when he decides to become the shyster we all know and love (more on that presently), that’s odd. “Marco” isn’t running in place. It’s not playing for time. It’s an important episode. And yet it feels so trivial.

It’s still hard for me to figure out exactly why “Marco” doesn’t work. So many excellent pieces are there, but it feels as though it lacks cohesion. Which means that as down as I am on it as a whole, I can definitely spend a lot of time rattling off the things I really liked. And then, probably, undermining them, because I’m a miserable old bastard.

For starters, there’s the most obvious one: Jimmy’s bingo night meltdown. Odenkirk delivers this masterfully, swinging from playful to frustrated to desperate as a roomful of people bear witness to something they’ll never be able to explain. It’s a great chance for the actor to showcase his talents, and he absolutely rises to the occasion.

But, I have to admit, it plays too much like a “big moment.” It smacks of narrative effort. Through no fault of Odenkirk’s, the bingo speech feels like something the writing room would have been celebrating before it was even on paper. Compared to Mike’s “I broke my boy” speech from “Five-O,” which felt as though it grew organically from the tragic story we’d just watched, this felt a little artificial. It felt like a product of structure rather than one of discovery.

I like that the other major players in this show — Hamlin, Kim, Chuck, Mike — got sidelined. They popped in for a scene or two, nodded at the audience, and disappeared. That helped to sell both the importance of this episode — with its unapologetic focus on a single character’s journey — and the decided detachment of Jimmy himself. Reeling from the revelation at the end of “Pimento,” our main character throws up his hands and walks away. So, too, does the show itself.

However, this also places an undue weight on that character, asking him to shoulder — for the first time — a story entirely on his own. Odenkirk is up to the challenge. Jimmy McGill is up to the challenge. But I don’t think the writers were up to the challenge. Stripped of his familiar environment and supporting cast, our protagonist falters. Removing him from his comfort zone is a great way to show us unrealized aspects of his personality. By the end of “Marco,” though, they stay unrealized. And while the episode does a good job of letting us know right off the bat that we’re going to witness an important step in Jimmy’s (d)evolution, the artlessness of the ending makes it too difficult to appreciate any of the preceding subtlety.

I like the idea of Jimmy’s Lost Weekend relapse being a string of low-stakes cons. His relationship with Marco has a believable feeling of history behind it, and there’s a lot of very nice things done with the idea that these two hold each other back while feeling like they pull each other forward.

Then again, the cons aren’t particularly amusing. Only one (the wristwatch) has resonance, being as that’s the one we saw pulled off successfully in “Hero.” Ending their reunion with a sour reprise of that note is smart, but it’s not worth the unimpressive (and overly long) string of cons it takes to get us there. Breaking Bad left an impact with its willingness to deliberate, to work through its own logic openly, to pull us along step after agonizing step. There, however, it was in aid of escalating tension, and it worked very well. Here, in particular with the Kennedy half-dollar con, it just leaves the audience with too much room to wonder if it’s making good use of the time. We spend too long on simple concepts, making it feel as though Better Call Saul is padding out the clock. It’s not a pleasant feeling. (And the less said about the idiotic fact that the Nigerian Prince con is in their rotation the better.)

The scene outside the church was wonderful, with Kim’s phone call feeling like a tentative return to normalcy. She knows he’s doing something self-destructive, but she understands why. She knows he probably needs that. She doesn’t pry, and she spins a few plates on his behalf while he’s gone. It dovetails nicely with the scene in which 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. She 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. (Which has, I say confidently, worked in the show’s absolute favor.) He drives over to Mike’s perch, says everything short of “I’m Saul Goodman now. See you next season!” and drives off humming “Smoke on the Water.” 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.

“Marco” seems to take at least a step back for each step it takes forward, and I think it’s the ending that works most strongly against it. It’s too obvious, and it reduces a journey (I keep using that word, because I want it to be true) to a snap decision.

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.

A far more intriguing end to season one would have been Jimmy getting hired on at that firm. 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.

We already know what he becomes. The fun, I’d have thought, would be in stringing us along. Stretching it out. Working him through various ups and downs, false promises and pyrrhic victories, which, eventually, break him.

Everyone involved with the show is talented enough to pull that off. And they may well still pull it off. But “Marco” ends in the last place I’d want it to end: being comfortably obvious.

I still owe you all a season one review. And don’t worry…I’ll have plenty to say there as well. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your patience.

Better Call Saul, "Pimento"

Before this show premiered, I had a lot of ideas about what it could be. “Heartbreaking” wasn’t one of them, but Jesus Christ would I be hard pressed to describe Better Call Saul without using that word now.

When the possibility of a spinoff was first floated, the idea seemed to be that it would be a comedy. Technically, it still is, but it’s one that’s very much in the mold of Breaking Bad. Though the laughs may be more frequent, they’re still just the relief between tragedies.

There’s only one more episode of the season to go, so speaking about its statement as a whole isn’t completely out of the question. If you were to ask me, I’d have to say that it’s telling us, on no uncertain terms, that Saul used to be a good lawyer.

That statement requires some qualification, as the Saul Goodman who represented Walter White was good at his job, good at protecting his clients, and good at keeping legal entanglements to an absolute minimum. But as Mike says this week about criminals, you can still be a good guy or a bad guy. What you do is one thing…what’s in your heart is another.

Saul Goodman was an effective lawyer. Jimmy McGill was a good one.

The path to becoming Saul Goodman is one that doesn’t seduce Jimmy by being more lucrative…it’s simply the only path available that doesn’t return him to square one. In “Pimento,” we see just how harsh the world can — and will — be to this man. Last week’s congratulatory “fuck you” from Howard Hamlin was indeed painful. This week’s “fuck you” from Jimmy’s own brother was downright devastating.

Kim plays a very important role in this show, even if it’s almost always passive: she’s a centered character. She’s emotional and rational in fairly equal measure, at least so far. She knows that Chuck’s condition is all in his head, but she also knows better than to shatter his perceptions. And she knows that Jimmy is flamboyant goofball, but she also knows that there’s a lot of good in him.

For her to declare to her boss, as she does in this episode, that Jimmy McGill is a good lawyer, we know that that’s the truth. She wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have said it otherwise. What she’s doing, from a narrative perspective, is orienting the audience. If you’re starting to think that Jimmy McGill was a good lawyer, she tells us, that’s okay; you’re right. And if you somehow made it this far in the season without reaching that conclusion, you need to think again.

It’s important that we recognize Jimmy’s position. For the mailroom dodo to be slapped down, well, that gives us one kind of sorrow. For an up-and-coming young attorney who surprises his social betters with his competence…well, being slapped down is more than just an insult. It’s a promise that they will not, under any circumstances, let him get to where they are. He is, in a word, fucked. And they will see to it that he stays fucked, because that’s his role in the world. He shares a surname with his brother, but he cannot be allowed to become his equal.

And that’s a whole other kind of sorrow. Because Jimmy McGill was allowed the view from the mountaintop. To be told “you will never have this” before you even begin is disheartening. To be told the same thing after you’ve already caught a glimpse, tasted it, believed in yourself, convinced yourself that this was as good as yours…that’s fatal.

Jimmy has a heart, and he has a conscience. He has pride that he’s very likely feeling now for the first time, and it runs him directly into a brick wall…not even one of his own making. Had he been responsible for the way he was treated at HHM, there’d be a kind of poetic justice. Instead, he’s guilty only of not being one of them. There’s no justice at all to that, and there never will be. Sorry Jimmy. Let’s revisit the issue in six months.

The reception of the McGill brothers as they enter the law firm says everything without saying a word. A round of applause for Chuck, who returns (briefly) from a sabbatical brought on by an imaginary medical condition. He gets a hug. He makes smalltalk. People are happy to see him, and to be in his company.

Jimmy, on the other hand, is ignored. Left behind. Nobody even helps him with the boxes. Nobody apart from Kim, anyway…

The pivot that Chuck takes in this episode (is there a space-blanket under that turncoat, Chuck?) is brutal. It relies on us knowing how much Jimmy has helped him, how far out of his way he’s gone for him, from buying groceries to keeping him company to running to the hospital to unplug the machinery in his room. (Okay, admittedly that sounds horrible when you take it out of context…) And it’s reinforced all the way through this episode, with Jimmy bringing Chuck outside, reminding him of simple pleasures like fresh air and the grass between your toes. It’s Jimmy building his confidence. It’s Jimmy bringing Chuck back to life.

And so for Chuck to turn around and knife him, it’s more than just a shitty thing to do; it’s a character-defining moment for the man who would be Goodman.

It’s also a painfully necessary moment, sold completely by Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean, keeping us clear of any morally “correct” answer. I think it’s safe to say that most viewers will come down on Jimmy’s side, but the truth is hazier than that.

You can be a good man, or a bad man. (Or, perhaps, a good man or a Goodman.) But what was the good option, and what was the bad? It’s wrong to double-cross your brother, but isn’t it also right to prevent an unskilled attorney from meddling with clients that he could potentially hurt? Which matters more? One matters on the personal level and the other on the societal level. Which is more important? Which will be remembered? One is an actual wrongdoing for the sake of preventing the other hypothetical wrongdoing. Should that be taken into account? Jimmy had a long, dark night of the soul when considering what to say to Chuck. Chuck, by contrast, slept soundly, and woke up with a whistle on his lips. Somebody had to get hurt…who ended up regretting that fact?

And we haven’t even talked about Mike’s plot, which sees him working a protection gig for a nebbish drug dealer. The man is a sort of alternate universe Walter White (dealing, notably, with a member of Tuco’s gang). It provides us with an Action Mike moment for the highlight reel and also an impressively quiet meditation on what it means to be good, and what it means to be bad.

Mike’s story doesn’t tie into Jimmy’s in any direct way (though his observation that Nacho doesn’t want Tuco finding out that he’s doing deals behind his back may well explain why he doesn’t make it to Breaking Bad…), and that’s okay. For now he’s the protagonist of a concurrent story that comments on the main one, even if it so far has only rarely intersected it.

There’s so much about this show that I haven’t even been able to get to in these reviews. For that reason, I’ll do a full Season One Review after next week’s final episode review. But for now, I do want to say that the distance the show is maintaining between Jimmy and Mike is wonderful. “Five-O” saw our favorite geriatric assassin spilling his guts…but it wasn’t to Jimmy. As vulnerable as he appeared to us, he’s still a mysterious and frightening figure to our hero. And that leaves room to explore a really interesting dynamic.

They never have to bond. They never even have to achieve a kind of respect. We get to learn about both Mike and Jimmy, as neither of them learn about each other.

They can continue to serve as uniquely ridiculous figures in each other’s lives. And they’ll both deal with their own personal tragedies in very different but very compatible ways, shifting into each other’s circles without ever having an understanding of why.

It’s a shame. They have more in common than they think.

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