Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

Better Call Saul, "Nacho"

“Nacho” manages to be both the funniest and most tense episode so far, which is fitting, as the entire chapter is a study in contrasts.

From the superficial (the fact that the episode is named after a character who appears in only one scene) to the artful (McGill’s brutal confrontation with Mike gives way to a surprisingly tender moment between the two), expectations are established, subverted, and reverted.

As Tom Petty once sang, “Everything changed, and then changed again.” Six words that could sum up the entire episode.

My favorite establishment / subversion / reversion comes almost exactly halfway through the episode, when McGill is pursued by what he believes to be assailants. As he flees the police roll up, and he is overcome with cosmic gratitude. Then he realizes that the assailants were police themselves, and he’s under arrest. Flip-flopping tonality is something that poorly written television shows suffer from regularly. Better Call Saul (in this sequence specifically and in this episode in general) takes what lesser shows struggle to avoid and turns it into a kind of mission statement. The result is a masterful comic tension that “Nacho,” impossibly, sustains all the way through.

The first subversion comes as soon as the episode opens, nullifying last week’s cliffhanger while at the same time respecting it, and following it through. At the end of “Mijo,” Nacho approached McGill and asked him to assist in a robbery. McGill quietly watched him go, and we were left with two implied outcomes: either McGill helps Nacho, or he chooses not to.

This episode opens by showing us that McGill has chosen a third option: to warn the potential victims. To a yes/no question McGill indeed answered no, but he answered a very specific kind of no that ends up implicating him more deeply than a yes would have. Everything changed, and then changed again.

The victims in question are the Kettlemans. They’ve been important to the past two episodes as well, though I didn’t really have reason to get into them until now. In “Uno,” McGill loses a chance to represent Mr. Kettleman, who is accused of embezzling around one million dollars from the City of Albuquerque. Later, he enlists the help of two young con-artists to manipulate Mrs. Kettleman into hiring him…an attempted manipulation that leads McGill and his cronies to the desert at the beginning of “Mijo.” This is where McGill, in a fit of desperation, reveals his machinations to Tuco’s crew. And it’s why, at the end of that episode, Nacho makes him the offer that he does. He knows the Kettlemans have this money. The question is, does Jimmy McGill want a cut?

Or, at least, that’s the question we all inferred. And it’s certainly the question that Saul Goodman would have answered. (Quickly, and loudly.) Jimmy McGill instead helps himself to the cucumber water he isn’t allowed to have during business hours, gets drunk, and, little by little, figures out a way to do some good.

What follows is farce. Harrowing, terrifying farce. It’s like a lost episode of Fawlty Towers in which Basil unintentionally sics a murderous drug dealer on a family of four. It’s that good, and that crazy.

It’s also, again, a study in contrasts. McGill using a very DIY voice modulator to warn the Kettlemans is hilarious…tempered immediately afterward by the shot of Nacho stalking them, and then their actual disappearance. It swings back to comedy, though, when a conversation with Kim reveals that it’s the same voice modulator he uses to play the part of the Sex Robot when they talk dirty to each other.

Contrast is everywhere. There’s the contrast between McGill believing Nacho to be guilty of kidnapping the Kettlemans, and Nacho believing McGill to be guilty of setting him up. There’s the contrast between Kim taking McGill to the ransacked Kettleman home to convince him to turn Nacho in, and the fact that the visit only ends up strengthening his resolve that Nacho had nothing to do with it. There’s the contrast between the Tonight Show aping of “Here’s Johnny!” at the start of the episode, and the Shining-sourced reprise of the same line at the end.

And, of course, there’s the sequence that begins with McGill and Mike coming to blows in the parking lot and ends with them coming to an unexpected mutual respect in the stairwell. Whenever we think we’ve got our tonal bearings, we hit another jolt. And never does it feel cheap. In fact, it feels like a mandatory part of this show’s DNA; Saul Goodman was introduced to us as the reliable comic relief in a world of decay and creeping misery. Now that we dive into the past to find out what made him who he is, we don’t see a world of grey areas so much as we see a world of endlessly, insanely flickering blacks and whites.

It takes a notable toll on our hero to do the right thing, and as soon as he does he’s hit with a series of incremental punishments. This in itself is enough of an explanation of how Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman. When it’s easier — and maybe even safer — to do the wrong thing, how long can a beaten man continue to do right?

Last week 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.” “Nacho” has that answer; you just make “absolutely not” lead, reliably, to tragedy. Doing the wrong thing is then redefined as not an act of selfishness, but an act of survival.

The question might not be “When do we get Saul Goodman?” It may actually be “When do we lose Jimmy McGill?”

Really, though, talk like that probably makes the episode sound more tense and less funny than it actually was. “Nacho,” sincerely, is a riot. McGill getting unwittingly drafted to act as Nacho’s attorney (“…you sure he asked for me?”) is great, as is Odenkirk’s floundering as he tries to force his nervousness to evolve into confidence when meeting with his new client. (More contrast for you, there.) And the line of the night comes courtesy of Jimmy’s complete lack of self-awareness as he scolds Kim: “You see? This is why people hate lawyers.” That’s character building through brilliant punchlines, there. How often do you see that?

I don’t think “Nacho” hit the highs of “Mijo,” but I also think it accomplished something very different than that episode did. Whereas “Mijo” assured us the show could achieve greatness, “Nacho” shows us the show’s inherent cleverness, spinning an intentional befuddle out of what — at heart — is a simple, uncomplicated mystery.

My only real question about the episode is the ending. The way the duffel bag rips open, spilling money everywhere, is played like a revelation. I’m not sure why. Did I jump the gun on assuming the Kettlemans were guilty? Maybe that was something I wasn’t supposed to realize until the end…but the fact that they kidnapped themselves rather than turn to the police cemented it for me well before we saw the evidence.

I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It doesn’t seem to be either an effective shock or a riveting cliffhanger. We expected them to have the money, and then they are shown to have the money. I may well be missing something here (go to town, dear reader), but even if I’m not, it barely amounts to a complaint.

When a story is told this well, I’m not going to quibble about its punctuation.

Better Call Saul, "Mijo"
Is it too early for Better Call Saul to produce a masterpiece? Maybe. But I’m calling this one anyway.

“Mijo” is an incredible piece of television. A tragic comedy in four distinct acts, each showing us another side of James M. McGill, amounting to what is essentially a portrait of the man we will be spending the rest of our episodes with.

I’ll start by saying that I cheerfully retract my concern that McGill was already Goodman. While there’s an awful lot of overlap, there’s a crucial difference; McGill has a conscience, and a reluctance to stay at the table after being dealt a lucky hand. It provides us, at least potentially, with an idea of the psychological territory Better Call Saul might chart. What will it take for him to willingly silence his conscience? How much must he stand to gain before he stops saying, “Absolutely not” and starts saying, “Yes, please”?

“Mijo” illustrates that very clearly in my favorite scene of the night, but we’ll come to that in due time.

“Uno” left us with a pretty intense cliffhanger; maniacal drug baron Tuco visited from Breaking Bad to jam a gun in our new protagonist’s face. This, I concede, is a thrilling taste of the great things Better Call Saul can do by keeping its action in the same town that Heisenberg eventually destroyed.

After all, in Breaking Bad, Tuco was fucking terrifying, yes. And yet he was also neutralized as a threat fairly quickly. I could go on to list all of the other threats that came and went over the course of that great show, but your mind is spinning through them already. A resurrection of a character like this is by no means a cheat, and gives us a chance to either further flesh out what made them tick (which is what happens here), or simply unleash them once again to do more damage (as I expect we’ll eventually get with Mike).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Tuco’s appearance is the fact that, relatively speaking, the guy’s at a pretty even keel. Of course he beats two teenagers half to death and nearly cuts off McGill’s thumb, but it’s that “half” and “nearly” that signify the difference. As with McGill, there’s a push that hasn’t happened yet…a tipping point that’s not quite been reached. Tuco is still on this side of his own personal event horizon; he’s a maniac, but not yet beyond reason.

It’s different from the Tuco we knew, and yet perfectly in line with what we know to be his destiny. There’s even a physical manifestation of this relative calm: his third hanger-on, Nacho.

When Gonzo and No-Doz show up, it’s for the purposes of cameo. Right? Well…no. They don’t have much to do, but their presence is required, simply because they enable us to feel that something is off. We remember the Tuco / Gonzo / No-Doz dynamic. We remember, especially, how it ended. Now, here, there’s what feels like an interloper.

He’s an artifact of calmer times for Tuco. Times we never knew, but which are immediately understandable. Nacho has a much bigger role than either of the two henchmen we’ve known longer. He takes control. He lets Tuco feel like he’s the king, but it’s Nacho pulling the strings. He regulates his boss’s heat. He’s cruel (or at least criminal), but he uses his mind. He’s clearly the brains of the group. The fact that he doesn’t make it to Breaking Bad in itself explains the entirely unbridled Tuco we encountered there.

McGill’s dealings with Tuco make up the first act of “Mijo,” and they reinforce an observation I made in the previous review: if you want to win against the man who would be Saul, you can’t engage with him. Tuco is in total control in the living room, when he lets Jimmy spill a stream of desperation to willfully deaf ears, and our hero is helpless. In the desert he allows himself to drift into a discussion, and everything tips immediately (and hilariously) in McGill’s favor.

We saw a bit of actual lawyering in the first episode, but here we get a sense of why Jimmy is good at what he does. The incompetence isn’t genuine; we knew that from Breaking Bad, and we see that it’s no less true here. McGill never positions himself as more intelligent than who he’s talking to, but we know he is. He’s a student of human nature, throwing out as much as he can in the hopes that something sticks, and always willing to look foolish. If he looks like he’s not a threat, after all, people will let their guard down. Tuco lets his guard down, and gets to feel like he’s being “tough but fair” by giving McGill what he wants. He gets to be the judge. The fact that this lawyer is deciding every move for him — and reigning him back whenever he starts to stray from McGill’s intentions — doesn’t register. Tuco feels like he’s in control because that’s what proto-Saul wants him to feel. And Odenkirk plays it masterfully.

Of course, Jimmy McGill knows when he’s won (an important difference between he and Saul Goodman), and so ends the negotiations with a couple of broken legs for his accomplices. He knows he can only push so far.

Which leads us into the second act, in which we see Jimmy at ease. “Mijo” opens with the man in a corner, doing his best to worm his way back out of danger. There’s an element of almost invisible panic driving everything he says. But when he’s free? He gets to be himself.

And that’s my favorite scene in the episode. Jimmy flirting with a woman he meets at the bar is the adorable kind of sleazy, an accomplishment that was only possible because we don’t hear a damned thing he’s saying, I’m sure. In fact, until its final moments, we don’t hear a word that anybody is saying in this sequence. Body language, gestures, implications, gazes. Those are what tell this amusing short story that we’re treated to after the first act’s Waste Land.

In the background, however, a man is snapping breadsticks, and it rattles McGill in a way that we know it won’t rattle Goodman. It’s his conscience that drills in on this image — and its accompanying sound effect — and won’t look away. He’s aware of the fact that people are hurt because of him. He’s correct earlier when he reminds one of the boys that he talked them out of a death sentence, which for Goodman would be enough. For McGill, however, it makes him physically sick.

Its effects linger on into the next day, when he wakes up on Chuck’s couch and every viewer in the world is reminded that only Bob Odenkirk could make a line like “Take off the space blanket” sound like the funniest thing in history.

The third act is a long, gorgeous, artful, clever, soaring montage of McGill doing the closest thing to public good he’ll ever do: acting as a public defender to whomever needs him. Everything about this sequence is perfect. The framing of every shot, the overlapping crowds in time-lapse, the continuous plunk of disposable coffee cups, the way he squeezes aside to let a criminal — and then the police chasing him — down a stairwell, the gleefully repeating punctuation of his arguments with Mike.

It’s this sequence that elevates “Mijo” for me from something quite good to something excellent. A reminder that Better Call Saul knows its purpose, even if we maybe don’t. It’s a confident, elaborate, brave setpiece in an episode that already had one. That’s how strong Vince Gilligan is at what he does; he can afford to double down. He knows just how to play with a tipping point, and we get one here, in act three, with what could almost qualify as an alternate future for James McGill.

Sure, he wouldn’t amount to much, and he’d never bring home more than $700 per defense. He’d argue with parking lot attendants until the day he dies, and be cheated out of every thirtieth cup of coffee.

And yet, he just might be happy. And safe. And doing a world of good for the rare defendant that really needs him, and who deserves a showboat lawyer who can turn a jury against their preconceived notions.

But we don’t end there. We have a fourth act.

We’ve seen Jimmy in danger, Jimmy at ease, and Jimmy at his best. Now we see him alone. Unsatisfied in a dingy office, nestled deep in the back of a nail salon. A door that won’t open all the way. A telephone that never rings. However full his weeks as a public defender may be, he wants something different. Maybe not even something more…but something different.

Nacho returns. Without saying it in so many words, he’s looking to partner up with Jimmy. At least once.

It’s unquestionably a bad idea. But…it’s still something different.

When he’s at his lowest, when he’s vulnerable, when he has nothing to distract him from the fact that he’s nobody, that’s when an opportunity like this can really sweep him away.

There’s a clear — ethically, legally, rationally — correct response to this offer. But, well…we already know the ending.

Better Call Saul, "Uno"
Let me get the elephant out of the way first; I don’t have cable. That means I’ll be a day behind on my Better Call Saul reviews. I don’t think that will matter in the long run, but in this particular case it means I’m writing about episode one while you’re all watching episode two. Do me a favor and try to avoid episode two spoilers in the comments, but otherwise feel free to pick apart the fact that everything I say here has already been disproven by the second installment. (Oh, and, needless to say, these reviews may well contain their own spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the first episode yet, go do that. It’s good.)

So, here we are. Breaking Bad is over, but we have another opportunity to dip back into its universe. It’s a spinoff. And a prequel. And…a sequel. But we’ll come to that in a moment.

If any character from Breaking Bad seemed like he could carry a show on his own, it would indeed have been Saul Goodman. Saul always did seem to me like an intrusion from another world. A welcome intrusion, I hasten to add, but when Walter described him as coming off like a circus clown, he was echoing my thoughts as well. Saul was the jester in a tragedy.

His introduction on Breaking Bad was given an entire episode; one full of complicated two-handed scheming to get ahead, and a strong prioritization of money over justice. That episode was also called “Better Call Saul,” and that short summary could apply to this introductory episode as well.

Saul Goodman has always been in danger of becoming a cartoon character. Yet, I’d argue he was kept just in check by Vince Gilligan and co. While his dialogue was too clever by half, it always seemed rehearsed. It’s not that Saul was witty…it’s that Saul was prepared. When we see him delaying a court case so that he can practice his precise words — not only what he will say, but what he will say in return — it bears that suspicion out. And I think it says a lot that the prosecutor in this very court case, which goes deservedly south for our hero, says absolutely nothing. He simply gets up and shows the jury the evidence. The prosecutor knows, or senses, that you won’t win a verbal sparring match with Goodman. Refuse to engage him, though, and you’ve got him on the ropes.

Better Call Saul, already, is filled with these little details that manage to define an outsized character without necessarily humanizing him. Perhaps down the line we’ll get our tear-jerking moments, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for them. Goodman is a strange creature, given to flights of theatrics and rushes of inventive panic. Sitting him beside more “traditional” television lawyers (such as the aforementioned prosecutor, or Mr. Hamlin in a later scene) reveals that Saul’s world wasn’t crazier than Walter’s; Saul was the comic outlier there, too. He’s the comic outlier everywhere.

One of the reasons, I believe, that people surrendered themselves so willingly to Breaking Bad was its promise of a built-in termination point. Whereas so many shows start off promisingly and then spin their wheels until the money stops coming in, Breaking Bad told us in the first episode that Walter White was going to die, and it was going to happen sooner rather than later. Vince Gilligan could have reversed that decision in any number of ways at any point, but, ultimately, he didn’t. Even when Walter “beat” cancer, it was already replaced by a much more frightening danger. Tension cannot be ratcheted up indiscriminately; at some point, it needs to go somewhere. Otherwise your audience realizes that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Better Call Saul, surprising me, opens with the promise of a termination point as well. Granted, we knew eventually that our favorite criminal lawyer would meet Walter White, and we know his story from there. But so what? Couldn’t Better Call Saul trot out silly court cases and situations indefinitely? Does he actually have to get anywhere?

The opening of “Uno” says, yes, he does. In fact, it picks up where Breaking Bad left off for him. He’s managing a Cinnabon in Omaha. He has a new name, a mustache, and impaired vision. And sometimes, when the nights are particularly lonesome, he’ll pop in a VHS of his old commercials, and remember what life was like when it had some color.

This means, again, that Vince Gilligan is taking us somewhere. As easy (and fun) as it would have been to give us The Continuing Adventures of Young Saul, we enter this story knowing that it’s not going to have a happy ending. And that’s tantalizing.

“Uno” does a lot of scene setting, which is understandable. The fact that in many cases it only sets the scene and leaves the rest for now to our imagination (such as the possible ousting of Chuck McGill from his partnership, and our hero’s romantic flounderings) is positively laudable. We trust the show to explain these things in due time, and the show trusts us to respect it and have patience.

However, there’s a problem. At least potentially. And here it is: James McGill is already Saul Goodman.

He has a different name, far less money, and a dearth of clients. He drives a Suzuki Esteem with one red door. He has more hair and has not yet discovered Bluetooth.

But he’s still Saul.

If you take the Walter White of Breaking Bad‘s first season and compared him to the Walter White of Breaking Bad‘s final season, the difference would be astonishing. The show very deliberately plotted his dark descent, but remove all of that knowledge from your mind and simply compare both versions of the same man. It’s striking.

Now take the Jimmy McGill of “Uno” and compare him to Saul Goodman. Superficial changes aside, I don’t think you’d see a different person. At all.

I don’t see this as a problem that can’t be surmounted, but I am interested to see what they do with it. If Breaking Bad was about a man changed by his circumstances, Better Call Saul looks like it’s about a man changing his circumstances.

We know he gets more successful, and we know that if he does experience a serious change of personality, it can’t be permanent. So what is the journey of Jimmy McGill? I don’t know, and considering the fact that I know both how his story begins and how it ends, that’s an unexpected admission.

Ultimately, Better Call Saul deserves to be thought of on its own merits, but the fact that it features more than one familiar Breaking Bad face — and is undoubtedly to feature more (hurry up, Kuby!) — means that we’re going to hold it to a higher standard than we would some unrelated Bob Odenkirk law comedy. Then again, we probably wouldn’t be watching that unrelated Bob Odenkirk law comedy.

As of the end of “Uno,” my concerns are more like questions. While some of the comedy went a bit broad (a phony severed head rings particularly false after the exquisite pain of Breaking Bad‘s more brutal moments), there are enough quiet passages of McGill facing something inside, something we can’t see yet. Something, maybe, we will never see. And at the very least, I’m looking forward to exploring that…however indirectly.

If it’s fun to spend time with Saul Goodman, then that’s all we really need. In a show that opens with its own inevitable, sad coda, though, I hope that’s not all we get.

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