Better Call Saul Reviews: “Rebecca” (season 2, episode 5)

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

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

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

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

Okay, so: who is Rebecca?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only question is, has he?

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

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

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

…and she does it.

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

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

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

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

…and she declines that, too.

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

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

And he was going to throw it away?

…well…maybe not anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Gloves Off” (season 2, episode 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This means something.

Mike is changing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I think we all know the answer.

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

And he can.

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

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

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

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

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 Reviews: “Cobbler” (season 2, episode 2)

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 Reviews: “Switch” (season 2, episode 1)

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.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...