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Better Call Saul, "RICO"

Ultimately, what we all want is to be accepted.

Socially, professionally, romantically, sexually, emotionally, intellectually, artistically…the specifics differ from person to person, but everything we do, everything that drives us, everything that gets us out of bed in the morning and keeps us limping through this confusing, frustrating, impossible dance of civilization comes down to a desire, in some way, in any way, to fit.

Jimmy McGill is no exception. And that’s heartbreaking.

On Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman filled the role of comic relief. It made sense there, and eventually became a necessary component of the show, because Walt’s story — Breaking Bad‘s central journey — was one of continuous unfolding tragedy. A character like Saul needed to be outsized and impossible to miss, because as the show continued and became weightier, we needed something on the other side to keep it from tipping into irredeemable darkness. And, so, he was there, the profiteering “circus clown” in Walter’s life.

In Better Call Saul, though, there is no Walt. Jimmy McGill is a jester without a court. In a tremendously sad reveal over the course of the past seven episodes, we’ve learned that this change in context means nothing: Jimmy’s the comic relief in his own story, too.

And that’s downright depressing.

The opening sequence of “RICO” walks us through one doomed and devastating attempt of Jimmy’s to fit in: passing the bar. And while we never hesitated to laugh at any of Saul’s bunglings or misfortunes, could we laugh at Jimmy’s here? I certainly couldn’t. It’s sad enough just learning that Hamlin and Co. know Jimmy as the guy who used to work in their mailroom, but his failed attempt to leave it behind him is genuinely painful.

He tries to make small talk with his more important colleagues, but they just want their mail. An unanswered “What’s up?” hangs in the air as Jimmy wheels his cart further along. Kim, unsurprisingly, is thrilled for him. Chuck — his more respectable, more successful, more intelligent older brother — is dumbfounded. If he’s proud at all it’s eclipsed by the shock he feels. More likely, he sees this as an act of supreme idiocy…his younger brother — for whom he no doubt pulled strings just to get him a job in the mailroom — getting mindlessly fleeced over the past several years by a correspondence school.

Remember when Skyler inspected Saul’s degree from the University of American Samoa? It was a funny, Lionel Hutz-type gag. Here, as we learn its origin, it’s a brick to the heart.

It all culminates in a very minor celebration for Jimmy. Some cake and soda in whatever empty space they can find around the copier. His friends — Kim amongst them — are sincere in their well-wishes. Hamlin is not. The fact that Jimmy is told he will not be hired on as a lawyer is not surprising, but the fact that Hamlin knowingly impedes on the celebration shifts the news from “sound business decision” to “overt fuck-you.” It was several years of hard work, expense, and persevering in the face of failure…and it came to nothing. Hamlin helps himself to a slice of cake.

No hard feelings, right? Do you want the door open or closed?

As last week’s episode ended, this week’s opens: Jimmy McGill, one more door closing on him.

The struggle for acceptance defines — and unintentionally ignites — “RICO.” It’s why Chuck offering his hand and Jimmy leaning in for a hug — however many years after Jimmy passed the bar — means something deeper than the warmth of the image. Now, here, against all odds, Jimmy McGill is in a position to do some good. And to do it the right way.

It’s also why Kim sticks by Jimmy…this mailroom buffoon that nobody, aside from her apparently, can bring themselves to take seriously. It’s not because she believes in him, exactly…she’s second-guessed him too often for that, and rightly so…but because he accepts her on a level that other people do not.

In “RICO” we see her moving her belongings back into her office, which is a good reminder of just how quickly she was moved out of it for losing a client through no fault of her own. She’s a good lawyer, and she did her job the way it needed to be done. Circumstances, temporarily, worked against her, and she was ceremoniously stripped of her rank. However much she might mean to Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, she’s not accepted. Whatever possibilities for promotion they may dangle in front of her, she’ll always be kept at arm’s length.

By contrast, when Jimmy offered her the corner office in his suite, she (and we) knew he meant it. It was as good as hers. No doubling back, no empty promises. He meant every word he said. And yet…he’s a nobody. Kim couldn’t accept the offer, because what kind of future could this man have? With him, she could have acceptance. With Hamlin, she could have significance. They both sound like nice options, but we know she really could have only made one choice. Nobody hands their future over to a clown.

And acceptance is what caused Jimmy to specialize in elder law. It’s not just because the elderly are the only ones who seem to pay him — though that’s undoubtedly part of it — it’s the fact that he can actually help them.

They like him. They recognize his suit. They enjoy his company. They spend their days watching the kinds of old movies Jimmy himself is always referencing. (References which, it should be noted, other characters his own age never seem to recognize.)

In fact, “RICO” itself is built on the foundation of Jimmy doing good. Helping an old woman prepare her will is one thing…taking a stand against the systematic fleecing of the residents of her assisted living facility is another. And while the latter has a much larger payoff, it’s also the case that will help the most people.

He stumbled across the scheme not while chasing ambulances, but while treating an old lady with respect. He listened to her…actually heard what she had to say. This is why he was able to piece something together that nobody else could: with all the money coming her way, why couldn’t she afford to pay full price for his services?

As far as she’s concerned, there’s a perfectly rational explanation…but Jimmy takes the time to dig, just to see what he can find.

Jimmy McGill has value. There’s a reason that he could, theoretically, make something of himself, and it’s the scene that finds him pawing through a dumpster in the middle of the night. A few episodes ago when he found the Kettlemens hiding in the woods, he offered his services and asked them a question: who found them? Was it Hamlin? Or was it McGill? One of these lawyers looked the part, but the other was willing to get himself dirty. Which is more valuable?

Again, there’s only one choice. Nobody hands their future over to a clown.

Jimmy might display fits of competence — including two that baffle Chuck this week — but he’s the comic relief, and everybody knows it. It holds him back. Or, more specifically, it hedges him into one kind of role.

Whatever values and abilities and usefulness he might have inside, society has already decided who he is. He can work as long and as hard as he likes to force the world to view him differently, or he can give up and conform to the vision of him that they already have.

And yet again, there’s only one choice.

If Better Call Saul is an extended reminiscence of the futureless manager of a Nebraskan Cinnebon, it’s an inherently tragic one. After all, that man isn’t reflecting on where it all went wrong; he’s reflecting on the fact that he never had a future to begin with.

Close the door, if you don’t mind. I need to be alone with my thoughts.

Better Call Saul, "Bingo"

I wondered what it would take to push a man over the line, to stop him saying “Absolutely not” and start him saying “Yes, please.” [This episode] has that answer; you just make “absolutely not” lead, reliably, to tragedy.

That’s from my review of episode three. After this most recent installment, I have to say I think I got it right. “Bingo,” as they say…

At the end of that episode, Jimmy McGill found the Kettlemans camping out. That encounter quite specifically (and quite literally) led to a payoff here. What song was it that the family was singing when he found them? Something about a dog having a name-o? Oh well; it probably doesn’t matter.

Here, Jimmy’s chickens are coming home to roost. From the opening scene — in which his Juan Valdez bump ‘n’ dump last week is less amusing to the police than it was to us — all the way to the very end, this man is facing the consequences of his actions.

Taking money from the Kettlemans was certainly the biggest mistake. While he did attempt to reposition their attempted bribe as a retainer, they refused, and he took the bribe anyway. Bad enough, and the fact that he tried to reposition it as a retainer only becomes another yoke around his neck. He was damned either way, but by attempting to help he ensured that he’d get twice as hurt in return.

The episode’s theme is summed up in the short exchange he has with Mike, when he explains that he’s doing “the right thing,” making damn sure to put it in quotes. And the tragedy is spelled out with two scenes in Jimmy’s could-be office. One of which brims with confidence and the promise of open space…and the other of which sees Jimmy breaking down, a door closing on him.

He was close in “Bingo.” He really thought he had it. With a burgeoning career in elder law — bolstered by a sponsored Bingo night for the local nursing home — he can afford to start thinking about these things. He runs out of room to stash his files. He can turn away clients. He can even steal Kim Wexler away from Hamlin. The way the shot is framed as he introduces her to her new office, we see only blue sky through the window. Nothing appears to be in their way.

Nothing, of course, except for reality. Because Jimmy’s vision of heaven — as modest as it must seem — needs to appear to him only so that it can be snatched away. He needs to believe that he can do this, so that when he actually can’t he will blame himself. He needs to feel in his bones how happy he can be, so that when it’s all ripped away it will hurt like a motherfucker.

The sweetness at the heart of Better Call Saul — at least at this early stage in its life — serves a similar purpose for the audience. The more time we spend with Jimmy, the less he seems like Saul. He has a different name, yes, but he also has a different identity. Try as I might, I can’t picture Saul Goodman giving Kim (or anyone like Kim) a tour of the office the way Jimmy did here. It was adorable, it was naive, and it left Jimmy wide open to a great deal of pain. Saul Goodman knows better, and the further Jimmy McGill drifts from that character, the more it’s bound to hurt when he inevitably snaps back.

Saul, to me, was never a bad man. He was, however, a man hiding a vague unhappiness. There was too much show about the showman. His divorces and troubled upbringing would sometimes come up, but it was mainly a feeling brought about by Bob Odenkirk’s masterful performance. As he demonstrated in Mr. Show, the funniest moments can still carry a note of sadness. Explore it or don’t; either way, it resonates.

With “Bingo,” we catch a glimpse, along with him, of an alternate future. Like Walt and Skyler touring their future home in a Breaking Bad flashback, we know what’s to come. Unlike that, however, we know that this won’t pan out. There’s never going to be a McGill, Wexler & Associates. He’s never going to be able to walk across his spacious suite and ask her where she’d like to go to lunch. They’re never going to work together on the same client.

Everything fragments. He saw how all of the pieces could fit together, but (or perhaps “and”) he failed to see that they never would.

You make a bad decision, and you live with the consequences. You can climb above your station, but you can only fight against gravity for so long.

You take the money, and you give it back. You take the client, and you give him back.

You end up in a situation that sees you fighting against something you want…forcing it away…beating it back. They call that doing “the right thing.” And, in the process, you lose something else you wanted. Probably what you wanted most of all.

The empty office becomes less of a goal and more of a reminder of what you’ll never have.

“Bingo” introduces us to a Jimmy McGill who comes dangerously close to making something of himself.

As the episode ends and he affects the voice of an invented secretary, I think he still believes in himself. But he believes in himself a little less than he did.

Time and fate and consequence will continue to wear that down to nothing. And that’s, quite literally, when there will be no more Jimmy McGill.

Better Call Saul, "Five-O"

“Five-O” is an episode of Breaking Bad in all but name. In fact, it plays like a one-off side story that feels of a piece with the source material, moreso than Better Call Saul does. While we know this isn’t true, would it be at all surprising if we found out that this was an old Breaking Bad concept, dusted off and given a second chance?

Throughout the course of Breaking Bad, we flashed back to see the characters in different, more innocent contexts. Walt and Skyler buy a home. Jesse builds a box in wood shop. Gus loses somebody close to him to the cartel.

Even within the timeframe of the show, we’d often flash back to things that must have happened while we weren’t looking. The show was unfolding around us, but we were elsewhere at the time. So we’d end up with a short scene of Jane taking Jesse to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. Or Gayle building the superlab. Or Tortuga at the bar. All of these things happened after the respective characters were dead and gone.

On Breaking Bad, death was the end. There were no miraculous recoveries. There was no escape. Saddest, perhaps, was the fact that there was no mourning.

And yet echoes carried. One of my favorite things about the show was the fact that we could trace every one of Walt’s problems in the final episodes all the way back, logistical step by logistical step, to decisions he made in the first episode.

Everything snowballs. A bullet to the head takes your life, but not your legacy. There’s a part of you left behind. A kind of ghost that lives on in the inescapable causal slide that you once set into motion. It continues long after you’re gone. It never stops. Death is the end for the dead…but not for anyone else.

Breaking Bad loved to fill in the gaps. Even — perhaps especially — those that didn’t actually need to be filled in. It was an excuse, and a welcome one, to spend more time with these characters. As a necessary result, we learned more about them. They felt more real.

And yet two major characters never got that flashback treatment. Two of the show’s best, and richest. Two that would be high on the list of everybody’s favorites:

Saul and Mike.

While Better Call Saul gets to chart with however much depth it pleases the rise and fall of Saul Goodman, Mike is still an unknown…a creature of inference.

At least, he was. Better Call Saul gives Mike the overdue Breaking Bad treatment, flashing back to a formative moment, and giving us insight into why the character we’re listening to is the character we’re listening to. Through no kind of coincidence, the episode is called “Five-O.” While that refers to the police that drive the story, it’s also an echo of Breaking Bad‘s pilot episode…which was originally called “Fifty.” The titular character of this show also makes what’s essentially a cameo…further echoing Breaking Bad, in which Goodman would be called in for a scene or two and then dismissed so the plot could proceed without him.

In other words, we’re in old, familiar territory. It’s the story of Mike breaking bad.

It’s also a reminder — as if anyone could possibly need one — that Jonathan Banks is an absolute treasure. Front to back, “Five-O” is his episode. And he doesn’t squander one second. The closing scene, in which his dry rasp gives way to a painful break, reveals a tortured and damaged soul. The worst part? He inflicted those wounds himself.

The story is simple, and nothing about it is shocking…nor do I believe anything could qualify as a twist. We see the entire thing playing out. We know what’s coming. We’ve already been told. “You know what happened,” Mike says. And we do. We know it before it gets here.

The agony and the tension is in the waiting…and yet it doesn’t dissipate when a gun goes off. If anything, it somehow manages to ratchet up further, until the most harrowing image in a story of murder and revenge is one of an old man, sitting on a couch in the dark, admitting he failed.

When we met Mike in Breaking Bad, he made an immediate impact. My girlfriend and I talked about the character well before we knew his name. (We called him The Cleaner.) Before long we got some sense of what made him tick (his granddaughter), his history (the half-measures speech), and his internal code of ethics (continuing to pay Gus’s chain of operatives after the operation itself is no more).

But all of these things were glimpses. Flashes of a deeper humanity in what was essentially the world’s most badass grandpa. We didn’t need to humanize Mike, because we liked his broad strokes plenty.

We liked Mike because he was intelligent, he was funny, and he got things done. He was comic relief at the same time that he was threatening (quite believably) the lives of characters we’d known much longer.

Perhaps the fact that we knew so little about who he was is what endeared him to us. Could we really dig into a decidedly dangerous fixer/assassin and find something relateable?

“Five-O” says sure, of course. Why not? Whatever Mike was, at any point, he was somebody else before that. Just as Saul Goodman was Jimmy McGill (a fellow transplant, it’s worth noting), Mike was Officer Ehrmantraut. He was good at his job, and raised a son that was perhaps even better at his. And before poor, unseen Matt (the ghost in the inescapable causal slide of this episode) meets an early end, Mike forces him to compromise his morals.

It might have been a no-win situation. Matty, as he was called, could well have been shot by his partner anyway. But what happened — what Mike made happen — was worse, simply because he had a hand in it.

He tried to help, which was worse than not helping at all, because now he feels like a failure. And his son — and a husband and a father…and a good cop — is gone.

That’s what weighs on Mike’s shoulders. Those are the chains that bind him. That is the tragedy that locked him up inside.

Mike’s relationship with his granddaughter was one of Breaking Bad‘s sweetest (and therefore saddest) threads. I don’t think we needed backstory for that; it was emotionally meaningful on its own. But knowing, as we do now, that the reason she needs to be provided for at all is because Mike — in his mind — got her father killed…well, that’s heartbreaking. That’s why he did all of the worst things we saw him do in Breaking Bad. The money he left her wasn’t an atonement…it was an apology.

Of course, by the end of Breaking Bad, that money is seized, and the little girl never sees a cent of it. The odds are good she wouldn’t even know about it. He failed his son, and failed his granddaughter. The tragedy of Mike Ehrmantraut is that he wasn’t The Cleaner. He was a human being.

“Five-O” is a spotlight on one of Breaking Bad‘s strongest actors…one I never would have thought I needed. In fact, I’m still not sure I needed it. And yet…I’m glad to have it.

This is the episode of Better Call Saul I’d be likely to watch most often. It’s a perfect, simple tale, filtered through the hardening heart of a man who wishes more than anything that he could undo the damage that he did. Damage that would likely have been done anyway.

It’s the sad beginning of a new life for Mike. It’s a chance to start over, and do things right. Which is the first step to losing it all.

I fucking love Better Call Saul.

Better Call Saul, "Alpine Shepherd Boy"

Here’s something I didn’t expect to say before this show premiered: Better Call Saul has an incredible sweetness at its core.

Remember, now, that this is a spinoff of Breaking Bad, where sweetness was not unknown but where it inevitably led to tragedy. What’s more, Better Call Saul is focusing on a character who was, in so many ways, an open facilitator of that tragedy. We met him in an Albuquerque of cynicism and despair, and he was at home there.

Seeing him at work in “Alpine Shepherd Boy,” we are in a whole other world. A world in which shiftiness and misdirection are necessary, but also a world in which there can be joy. In which there can be happiness. A world in which underhanded methods can be employed in aid of making things better.

This is the conflict at the heart of Jimmy McGill, and I think it’s one that’s been there even when we knew him as Saul Goodman. In Breaking Bad, Saul was the one who expanded Walter’s reach, his empire, and, ultimately, his capacity for destruction. While he was never directly involved with what were probably Walt’s darkest actions, he kept the plates spinning in the background. What’s more: he was happy to do so.

And yet, nobody disliked the guy. As frustrated as we got with Walt, as frightened as we got of Gus, as worried as we got for Jesse, Saul was always just there. He didn’t inspire the same kind of severe audience reaction, because he was somehow separate from the events unfolding around him. He was of them, and not of them. From the moment he entered that world — in a satirical, comic bubble — he felt safe.

Whatever happened, Saul was going to be okay. And we were perfectly happy with that. In spite of the fact that he was doing Very Bad Things, we needed to trust that he was going to be fine…even when we could trust in nothing else. There’s a reason, after all, that his kind of character is referred to as comic “relief.”

In Better Call Saul, Jimmy’s been up to some fishy business, but we love him. And “Alpine Shepherd Boy” shows us why: he can be a good person. He has the potential in him, somewhere, to be an excellent human being. He won’t become one through hard work and initiative, of course…he’ll become one (if he ever does) through dodges and deception. But that’s what makes him such a great character; he operates in an intrinsically hateable way, but never becomes hateable himself.

“Alpine Shepherd Boy” seems to offer a thematic bookend to a great sequence in “Mijo.” Whereas that episode carved for us a representative cross-section of what Jimmy McGill’s life would look like as a public defender, this one shows us what his life would look like if he embraced semi-legitimacy. In short, he goes from representing those who need a lawyer and can’t afford one, to representing those who don’t need a lawyer but can afford to throw their money away on one.

It’s a fantastic series of scenes, showing our unhateable shyster meeting with a fanatical secessionist, the inventor of a sex toilet, and, most lucratively, an old woman relaying complicated plans for the posthumous distribution of her porcelain figurines. Across each of these we learn a little more about Jimmy, but what really stands out is how strong Bob Odenkirk is as an actor.

I know Odenkirk very well from many things, not the least of which is Mr. Show. Mr. Show was a sketch comedy program that ran for four seasons on HBO. It’s also one of the very few sketch-based examples I point to (along with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The League of Gentlemen) when I argue that good acting elevates good comedy.

In Mr. Show, the sketches didn’t wear out their welcome. They flitted and evolved and darted across the screen. At no point did the show technically need Bob Odenkirk and David Cross to deliver legitimately impressive performances…but the two of them did anyway. And that’s, I honestly believe, what gives it staying power. In sketch comedy, jokes will fall flat. They have to; mathematically, there’s no way to try to spin so many different kinds of laughs out of so much material and have it all land successfully. Put good acting behind it, though, and even the weakest skits become interesting, and instructive.

Odenkirk is a master. Watching those three scenes of him with clients, it’s impossible to deny that. His attempt to maintain composure in front of the secessionist (and then again for a whole other reason when he’s offered a million dollars), is solid work. His fumbling lies about practically specializing in patent law are delivered perfectly, with just the right amount of confident deflection. And his response to the old woman who takes far too long to hand him a figurine (“Oh.”) takes understatement and evolves it into an artform.

But what about the sweetness I mentioned?

Well, it comes out of last week’s cliffhanger…which was not where I expected it to be. While “Alpine Shepherd Boy” moves the story forward from Jimmy’s billboard anti-heroics, the real stakes come as a result of Chuck stealing his neighbor’s newspaper.

A very funny sequence in that episode becomes a sad one here, as poor Chuck is tasered by the police and threatened with involuntary commitment. It’s a genuine achievement for “Alpine Shepherd Boy” that the funniest extremes of Chuck’s “condition” lead us smoothly into the saddest.

Chuck — played by Michael McKean — suffers from what Jimmy oversimplifies as an electricity allergy. From the very first episode we’ve had indications that it’s a psychological problem rather than a physical one, and “Alpine Shepherd Boy” proves that conclusively. But it’s also evidence that Jimmy loves his brother, and that’s where the sweetness lies.

While Jimmy may be humoring Chuck, the fact remains that he does take care of him. He doesn’t humor him because it’s the easy way out…he humors him in spite of the fact that this means he’ll have to keep his brother in groceries, ice, and newspapers until the day one of them dies.

And when Hamlin — Chuck’s law partner — shows up at the hospital, it almost looks like Jimmy’s caved. He says he’ll commit his brother just so that he can cash him out of the law firm. A moment later we learn that this isn’t true, and he only said it to make Hamlin sweat. It was a dishonest tactic, but one that served, he felt, a better purpose.

It’s an interesting twist. Instead of a bad man pretending to be good, this is a good man pretending to be bad. And it’s kind of gorgeous.

Something I haven’t mentioned much about is Jimmy’s relationship with Kim, played by Rhea Sheehorn. Sheehorn’s been in a lot of things, it looks like, but I’ve only seen her in this…and, god, she’s good.

There’s a level of remarkable interplay between her and Odenkirk. Chemistry, as Chuck would say, is an oversimplification, even if it’s largely correct. There’s something about them that feels real. The way she’s more capable, and yet admires his tenacity. The way she’s above him in station, and yet is envious of the stories he gets to tell of his crazy clients. The way she’s attractive enough that a man like Jimmy McGill shouldn’t even turn her head, but she also knows that he listens…and that he cares. He’s open with her. He’s honest (so much so that he’ll break an NDA just to make her laugh). He’s human. She wants that.

That’s the real sweetness I felt in the episode, coming to a head in Chuck’s hospital room, when she can’t bring herself to break anybody’s heart by disagreeing with them. She knows she’s dealing with two McGills that are, each in their own way, liars. And yet she cares about them. At any given point she could open her mouth and prove both of them wrong. But she keeps her mouth shut, because she’d rather keep them than come out on top.

Kim is my favorite new character on this show, and the ease with which she and Jimmy slip into each other’s lives is a delight. In fact, I’m sad that Breaking Bad introduced us to a post-divorce Saul. It means that whatever happens between these two, there’s a termination point. And I’d be shocked if it was a fair or pretty one. As it stands, Kim is marching toward disappointment…which makes the happy accident of Sheehorn and Odenkirk working so well together feel like a profoundly distressing tragedy.

There’s also a sweetness to Jimmy’s relationship with Mike, one that looks to blossom into something truly interesting next week. So…maybe I’ll save my talk about that for then.

Jimmy McGill has a heart. He’s a showman and a flimflam man, but one (for now) with a conscience. When Kim turns him on to the idea of specializing in elder law, he latches right onto it in a way that feels exploitative (for obvious reasons), but also genuine. After all, the old woman with the figurines was the only client he was actually able to help.

His foray into elder law is a lot like one of those optical illusions. You look and see an old crone…but keep looking, and it turns into a beautiful young woman. Keep looking beyond that, and you’ll see both images fighting in your brain for supremacy, with no clear winner. Likewise, everything Jimmy does in his elder law posturing seems to occupy a constantly fluctuating, indefinable middle ground.

That’s Jimmy in the old woman’s living room. Sure, she’s the only one who paid him…but she’s also the only one to whom he could offer any value. He wasn’t asked to do much, but he was good at keeping straight what he was asked to do.

That’s Jimmy in the retirement community. Passing out Jell-O cups as a good deed…but they also serve as promotional materials for his services. He’s glad-handing a bunch of helpless senior citizens…but they genuinely seem to enjoy his company, and are appreciative of it.

And that’s Jimmy handing Mike his new business card.

We get a wonderful, and largely silent, view of how that plays out for Mike after the red-doored Esteem pulls away.

Jimmy McGill might have found a way to do some actual good, even if he is seeking to profit from it. But to phrase that another way, Jimmy McGill needs to profit off of something…so might it not as well be doing some actual good?

The image flips. It refuses to become one thing or the other for very long. We’re in a state of flux. And it’s fucking fantastic.

Better Call Saul, "Hero"

It’s hard to believe Better Call Saul has only been on for four episodes. It feels as though it’s run for much longer. That’s an indication, I think, of just how effortlessly it slides into the vacancy left by Breaking Bad. It’s not a replacement in terms of subject matter — could Breaking Bad have devoted an hour of its precious time to squabbling over a billboard? — but in terms of quality, and the sheer amount of care that goes into every aspect of its production.

Watching “Hero,” something struck me. When Better Call Saul was first announced, I was worried. Not because I didn’t think Goodman (or Odenkirk) could sustain a show on his own, but because Vince Gilligan wouldn’t be writing it. He’d create it, get some plates spinning, and move on to his next project. He’d be leaving a universe he created in the hands of others, and that’s always a worrying prospect…even when the universe is nowhere near as complex and well-structured as the one he developed in Breaking Bad.

What struck me during “Hero” is this: Gilligan didn’t just write a great show; he taught a whole room full of writers how to write a great show.

Breaking Bad represents, from beginning to end, a remarkably sustained quality, and an even more strongly sustained vision. “Hero,” this most recent chapter in the life of Jimmy-cum-Saul, was written by Gennifer Hutchison…whose name was also attached to some excellent episodes of Breaking Bad. “I See You,” “Cornered,” “Salud,” “Buyout,” and “Confessions” represent her work for that show. In terms of tone, they have nothing — at all — in common with “Hero.” In terms of quality, they’re of a definite cloth.

What made Breaking Bad work at even its weakest moments — and what is making Better Call Saul work already — is a sense of artistry. There’s a level of attention given to the way shots are framed, costumes are fitted, and sets are designed that contributes to an overall feeling of mastery. At any given time, we may not know what we’re looking at, or why we’re looking at it. (Remember that kid on the dirtbike at the beginning of “Dead Freight”?) We stay attentive, however. Perhaps even more attentive, because we can trust the writers. When there’s the reassuring presence of an artist’s hand, we are willing to follow along.

“Hero” relies almost entirely on the artist’s hand, which isn’t to say it’s worse off for it. As of now I’d probably argue that it’s the weakest of Jimmy McGill’s outings, but that comes with the important caveat that it’s still very good, and oddly riveting.

The episode is responsible for a lot of setup that simply needs to be done, as until now Jimmy’s rivalry with Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill has been relegated to the background. It’s Hutchison’s job to catch us up and push that aspect of the story ahead.

It’s busywork, at least at its core. What salvages “Hero” is the fact that the show seems to revel in busywork…just like public defender Jimmy McGill. There may not be much at stake, but damned if we aren’t going to get a fireworks show.

The plot itself is simple: McGill buys and poses for a deliberately inflammatory billboard. I can’t go too much further than that without spoiling something, but I will say that once the episode comes to a close, it doesn’t actually amount to much more than what I just said. And that’s okay, because all throughout we’re sowing seeds for episodes to come.

We have lots of great character moments throughout, starting from the very beginning. Caught red handed, the Kettlemans hopelessly fumble their way through a justification for their crimes…one they obviously established a long time ago, and haven’t had to revisit since. That’s why when it’s finally verbalized it starts with some vague grandstanding about getting paid fairly for overtime and ends with them pointlessly reminding McGill that human slavery used to be legal.

It’s a well-observed moment; these people made a conscious choice to break the law, and reasoned themselves into a kind of comfort before doing so. What they were doing — they taught themselves to believe — wasn’t legal, but it was right. They talked about it and thought it through. They discussed it long into nightfall and then daylight. And once they convinced themselves, they never had to think about it again. Until now…when they reveal all their clever rationalizing to be hot air that no longer even convinces themselves.

Chuck also gets an incredible spotlight moment when he needs to venture out of the house to buy — not steal — a neighbor’s newspaper, in a sequence that I simply cannot describe without stripping it of all of its humor. Having said that, I absolutely need to gush over how wonderful it was that he not only left $5, but went to find a stone to weigh it down after it started to blow away. The return trip being shot from the neighbor’s perspective was just perfect, and that camera angle alone was probably responsible for my biggest laugh of the night. (I can’t wait for a spotlight episode on Michael McKean; I’m holding back most of my comments about his character until we learn a bit more.)

Also wonderful was McGill getting himself fitted for a decidedly Hamlin suit. At first I just assumed he was spending his windfall (more on that in a moment) on anything he’d need to look legitimate. A nice suit, certainly, would fit that bill. But then, after the tailor leaves, McGill wanders over to the shelves and starts considering hideous color combinations that hint at the Goodman within. Perfectly silent, and a perfect moment.

Actually, “Hero” is shot through with echoes of that character to come. We witness the earliest (chronologically speaking) occurrence of the name Saul Goodman, a deliberate pun on the part of a too-chummy Slippin’ Jimmy, and we’re reminded of something we learned in “Uno”: the fact that Jimmy McGill is not going to be able to practice law in Albuquerque under his real name. (Well, technically he can, but as the battle lines are drawn, it’s not unlikely that the change to Saul Goodman is the result of a fight poorly picked.)

But perhaps the biggest indication of what’s to come is how the night in the woods resolves itself. McGill does indeed offer to turn a blind eye to the money for a chance at representing the Kettlemans. He outright refuses a bribe, and offers, instead, his services.

It’s only when Mrs. Kettleman reminds him of something that he relents, and allows himself to be bought off. She reminds him, in a moment of perfect, inevitable heartbreak, that they won’t let him represent them…because he’s the kind of lawyer that guilty people hire.

I know he takes the money. I know how he accounted for it. (Literally.) And I know what he did with it.

But you know what?

Part of me truly hopes that there is some humanity in Jimmy McGill. That the fact that he seems to accept his status on the seedy end of the legal spectrum doesn’t suggest comfort or complicity.

No. I want to think that, on some level, he took the money because he wanted to change the fact that he was the kind of lawyer guilty people hire. The money could, as it does, buy him some valuable publicity. It could give him a platform he hasn’t had before. It could get him in front of the right kind of clients.

Buying himself into a living of doing public good isn’t the best way of getting there…but it’s a way.

Of course, we know who Jimmy becomes. What I’m hoping is that it takes him a little bit longer to get there, because nothing would thrill me more than seeing that the slippery slope to Saul Goodman appeared to him as a ladder to a better Jimmy McGill.

Some shows struggle at creating characters. Four episodes in, I wouldn’t blame Better Call Saul if that was the case here. But already these characters are already becoming people.

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