Warning: Spoiler Alert
While the preferred style in this corner – as well as the site’s Justified reviews with the same humble scribe – is to begin with a relaxed look at the overall state of the show’s landscape heading into the episode, that doesn’t really fit the bill here for two reasons. First of all, Better Call Saul only had one episode before this one, although it adheres to the canon of mothership show Breaking Bad. Our series preview, which can be found here, covers the broad strokes. And also, the series debut was essentially formatted as a two-part deal on consecutive nights, so we the viewers were eventually left with a cliffhanger in the midst of the initial story.
So in lieu of a detailed examination of where the story lies at this early point, it’s worth recommending our recap of the first half of the initial story, which can be found here. In a condensed fashion, here’s what was shown of Walter White’s master lawyer Saul Goodman in Episode 1.1:
^ Saul’s post-Breaking Bad life is indeed the frustrated existence that he forecast as a Cinnabon manager in Omaha, wistful for his days as a big deal on the New Mexico legal scene.
^ Back in 2002, Saul is still known by his birth name of Jimmy McGill and he is a struggling lawyer in the shadow of his older brother Chuck – who becomes disabled by a condition, leaving him unable to practice law and in limbo with his lucrative company stake in the balance between the family and the law firm. Chuck is caught in the middle between the wishes of Jimmy and company boss Howard Hamlin.
^ Mike the Cleaner is a parking lot attendant at the municipal courthouse and banters for the first time (in an unfriendly manner) with Jimmy.
^ Looking to turn his luck around, Jimmy retains the services of two skateboarding brothers who throw themselves in front of cars to threaten nervous/guilty drivers. Their initial scheme runs awry when they mistakenly choose the wrong automobile and when Jimmy emerges for the shakedown, he finds himself with a gun being pointed in his face by … Tuco Salamanca!
Yes, the Breaking Bad universe is back in full effect as Episode 6.2, Mijo, gets underway – and the narrative device used to paint the picture of why Tuco is so enraged by Jimmy’s appearance actually mirrors that of Breaking Bad Episode 6.12, Rabid Dog. [To refresh everyone’s memory, Jesse, in a fit of rage, breaks into the empty White household at the end of Episode 6.11 and begins dousing it with gasoline in an attempt to get revenge on Walter by burning his home to the ground. Walter, at the beginning of 6.12, encounters Jesse’s abandoned car outside his house, finds the front door broken down, a floor full of gasoline – and no Jesse anywhere. Approximately a quarter of the way through the show, a retrace of the events reveals that Hank stumbles upon Jesse just as he’s about to light the match and he spirits him away in pursuit of an alliance – just ahead of Walt’s arrival home.] The mystery of what happened after the grifter skaters walked through the front door of Tuco’s house is shown, as it was omitted at the end of 1.1. In short, their mouthy attitude towards Tuco and his grandmother was absolutely hilarious – since we the viewers of the original series know Tuco to be a completely unhinged psychopath with dangerous, sudden mood swings. And that’s on a good day. Referring to the grandmother as a “biz-nitch” – well, you didn’t need the frame of reference from Breaking Bad, just the murderous look in Tuco’s eyes, to know that these twerps were going to pay.
The first installment came when Tuco shooed his grandma upstairs, on the pretense of her being able to watch her beloved TV show. His initial assault on the twosome with her cane led to an ominous scene of her walking in on him scrubbing red spots out of the rug that he tried to pass off as salsa. With her back upstairs and the audience left to assume the worst about the fate of the skateboarders, Tuco hears Jimmy knocking at the front door and the references that he’s calling through the door about the law. At that point, Tuco pops the door open, produces the gun, and catches us all up fully to the end of Episode 1.1.
Once inside, a terrified Jimmy tries to explain that he’s a lawyer who had been summoned by his clients, who he assumes have made a grave mistake of some kind. Tuco’s half-annoyed, half-impressed reaction of “Wow, you got a mouth on you,” carries with it the first faint hint that Jimmy may yet be able to talk his way out of the situation without a complete calamity taking place.
[It’s worth noting here, at the first instance of Jimmy’s physical danger in this young series, that the limitations of a prequel are intruding for the first time, as we know that Jimmy will pass through the entirety of this series without suffering any lasting damage. However, the same could perhaps be said for any situation in the second episode of a series, when we know that the main character will not suffer death or any disabling injuries.]
Led by Tuco to where the skateboarders are bound and gagged, Jimmy is handed a knife by Tuco to cut them loose. The general sense is that the volatile Tuco hasn’t made any final decisions, but is momentarily leaning in a saner direction. However, when the two punks begin trying to sell out Jimmy as the master of this particular scam in order to try to save their own skin, Tuco’s homicidal glower leads directly into, naturally, a commercial break … with a bound and gagged Jimmy being deposited in the New Mexico desert at the other end of it.
By this point, Tuco has a crew with him, including Jesse Pinkman’s old associate No Doz and a new character that is going to be a core part of the show going forward, Nacho, who is a voice of some wisdom, if not quite reason. Tuco interrogates Jimmy intensely and everyone hears an exact version of how events transpired. A paranoid Tuco then steps up the physical intimidation in search of the “truth” – whereupon Jimmy weaves a fanciful tale about being undercover FBI Agent Jeffrey Steele, who had been investigating Tuco and his friends for drug trafficking. However, Nacho sees through the story and everyone circles back to the understanding that Jimmy’s story – however fanciful – is indeed true. Nacho also convinces Tuco that killing a lawyer is bad for business, so our beloved scoundrel is about to be led away while the skateboarders are left to taste Tuco’s wrath.
From this point forward, Jimmy’s dealings on behalf of the grifters indicate that he’s still got way more of a conscience than the Saul Goodman who wondered aloud about the necessity of killing Badger and Jesse to silence them in the Breaking Bad days. He walks back towards Tuco, trying to flatter him as a man who is “tough but fair” and he urges Tuco to keep his punishment of the young jerks proportionate to the crime. Still enraged by the insult towards his grandmother – say what you will about the man, but he’s very caring about his elderly relatives – Tuco initially insists upon death for both, then permanent injuries, then he accepts Jimmy’s “plea bargain” of one broken leg apiece. Initially pleased with himself for saving two lives, Jimmy’s grimace while the violent acts are taking place reminds us again of the good soul that he still has deep down – although he allows himself a self-congratulatory comment about saving lives later as one of the skateboarders is complaining to him as he’s being wheeled into the ER.
Subsequently, during an encounter with a flashy woman in a bar that may have been either personal or professional (in the delicious artsy manner that Breaking Bad occasionally utilized, none of the words being spoken are heard by viewers, just a cha-cha-cha song that’s being interjected), the sight of breadsticks being broken at another table triggers the desert memories, nauseates him and causes him to hurl in the bathroom. Later, after what must have been quite a bender, he passes out on the couch of his brother Chuck – before remembering to leave his cellphone outside. Chuck discovers it with horror during the night and, well, chucks it outside. His condition, as it turns out, is called electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Researchers cannot confirm it as an actual condition, but sufferers somehow only feel relief from their symptoms when they are away from all electricity and electronics. When Jimmy awakes, he finds Chuck huddled in a space blanket to ward off the lingering effects of the phone. Chuck indicates that he saw the ER bill that fell out of Jimmy’s pocket during the night and the younger brother swears that he’s not “backsliding” into the “Slippin’ Jimmy” act again and that he did a good thing. Frankly, from the perspective of Breaking Bad viewers who occasionally caught glimpses of the faint non-corroded slivers of Saul’s heart, what he did was an unbelievable thing! Jimmy beseeches Chuck to shed the space blanket, which he reluctantly does – and immediately puts back on when Jimmy goes outside to retrieve his phone.
From there, images of Jimmy’s sad-sack legal existence at the fringes of the metropolitan courthouse flash to and fro – including another confrontation with Mike about the right amount of stickers needed to leave the parking lot and the coming attraction for next week indicates that Mike is going to confront him physically and then, presumably start the process of becoming “The Cleaner.” Back at his office, the truest reveal yet of Jimmy’s financial trouble comes when he pops a bed out of the couch in his tiny, cramped space. Surprisingly, one of the Asian ladies from the nail salon appears at his door, informing him of a potential client. Jimmy hurriedly places the bed back in the furniture and tries to smooth out the appearance, but when you’re dealing with a boiler room, there’s only so much you can do to polish that particular turd.
The would-be client is Nacho, smirking as he takes in Jimmy’s surroundings. He tells Jimmy that his story about the would-be clients that he told out in the desert resonated with him – because Nacho’s specialty is in ripping off other crooks, who of course cannot go to the police. This county treasurer surely must have his seven figures socked away somewhere and if Jimmy can locate it for him, there’s a tasty finder’s fee to be had. Jimmy protests that he’s got the wrong idea – and given that we can tell that he’s not yet Saul in name or in spirit, he’s actually somewhat persuasive. Try to picture Saul (honestly) telling someone “I’m a lawyer, not a criminal.” Or “I’m not in the game.” Nacho is disbelieving, but in another example of his gift for assessing situations, he deduces correctly that the desperate Jimmy is first and foremost fooling himself about being able to succeed on the right side of the law. After the obligatory threat to keep his mouth shut, Nacho scrawls a phone number for Jimmy, telling him to call when he figures out that he’s in the game.
Having now seen both parts of the series opener, it’s clearer than ever that they were meant to be taken together, as the second episode didn’t touch at all on Chuck’s law firm (save for a meaningful glance between Jimmy and Kim in the courthouse at one point, providing more evidence of a connection there that will surely be fleshed out) and the first one had yet to see new character Nacho on the canvas. Subsequently, with the cast of characters that will be utilized regularly, it would be fair to imagine most weeks that Jimmy’s twists and turns into the Albuquerque underworld will form the “A” story with Chuck/the firm comprising a “B” story that intersects via Jimmy’s involvement.
And after viewing both episodes, it’s clear why critics who had the benefit of screening them ahead of time were so much in love with them, with many even noting that they were ahead of Breaking Bad at this early stage. The show has an impossible standard to live up to and we all know that. But so far, they’re doing the impossible and filling that blue-chunk-of-meth-sized hole in our hearts. If anyone can keep this going, it’s the team helmed by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould.
For the last word on how this series started, it only seems fitting to turn to the immortal words of Tuco himself. “TIGHT! TIGHT! TIGHT!”