Better Call Saul

This is the review for Season 1 of Breaking Bad, focusing on the biggest revelations of the first 10 episodes of the series.

Better Call Saul 1-10

Photo Courtesy of AMC Network

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan and the Better Call Saul creative team have managed a tremendous feat this season: creating an origin story – with a character that we know will turn into a greasy, amoral “CRIMINAL lawyer” – in which the character is a completely sympathetic underdog.  Nine episodes into this incredible prequel, Jimmy McGill has remained a totally separate character from the later Saul Goodman.  Sure, there are revealing glimpses about how Jimmy could morph to the dark side, but most of the time has been spent portraying the distinct man that used to exist.

The zigs and zags of Season 1 left fans wondering when and if we’d actually see Jimmy “break bad” this season and move towards full-on Saul-dom.  And then the moment of truth arrived at the end of Episode 1.9 last week when Jimmy was shocked and devastated to learn that the man pulling strings to hold him down was actually his own, psychologically-disabled brother.  THAT is the kind of trauma that can cause a man always struggling to “do the right thing” to decide that he’s being a sucker.  And Episode 1.10, Marco, the season finale, actually adds salt to the wound in terms of two people actually being nice to him: Howard, perceived all along as a real bastard, but a guy who really didn’t want to be cruel to Jimmy and Kim, the ambitious friend who many viewers thought might be the one to undermine and embitter Jimmy in the end.

But the episode begins with another flashback to the Cicero days: when Jimmy got sprung from jail by big brother Chuck, as seen in a previous cold open.  The man for whom the episode is named, Marco, chats with Jimmy in a bar as our hero is about to move to Albuquerque to begin the ill-fated HHM mailroom stint.  Marco pleads with Jimmy to stay, but, obviously at this point, Jimmy still idolizes and feels indebted to Chuck, so he’s leaving.

Back in the present-day American Southwest, Jimmy talks to Kim in the HHM lobby.  He’s here to present the Sandpiper case to Howard after all and take the terms offered to him.  When he asks her why she didn’t tell him the truth, she indicates that she didn’t want him to hate his brother.  In the meeting with Howard, the old adversaries are actually getting along now that the truth has been revealed.  Howard asks if Kim revealed what he told her and Jimmy denies it, having figured it out himself.  The deal is agreed to quickly on the terms HHM previously offered and Jimmy adds a simple addendum: the list of supplies needed to be furnished to Chuck regularly.  Howard is flabbergasted that Jimmy has run himself ragged with these errands on an ongoing basis and as such, he is totally believable when he tells Jimmy that he always liked him and wanted to do better by him.  An appreciative Jimmy believes it, even as he remains galled that the man that he thought was his archenemy is actually a nicer guy than his own flesh and blood.

With Chuck’s despicable words still ringing in his ears, Jimmy MCs another bingo game at the nursing home that contains his clients and prospective clients.  In a farcical but compelling scene, a series of balls keep coming out of the hopper containing the letter “B.”  After giving voice to his demons by uttering “B as in Brother … B as in Betrayal … B as in Benedict Arnold,” the long chain of consecutive “Bs,” which only serves to prolong the game unbearably (to him, not to the quietly contented old folks) creates a tableau that ironically does not pass his lips: “B as in Breakdown.”  To a suddenly startled audience, he begins a funny monologue that turns more troubling as it picks up steam.  It’s the story of why he got arrested in Cicero ten years earlier.

That aforementioned cold open had referenced a “Chicago sunroof” without providing any context.  Well, it was furnished here in all its smelly brown glory.  Jimmy had been wronged by a cad named Chet, who slept with his wife, so when Jimmy saw the chance to provide that “Chicago sunroof” – by, you guessed it, pooping through the panel on top of the car – the presence of the children in the back seat complicated the matter terribly.  As it happens, due to tinted windows that Jimmy claims were illegal in Illinois, he had no idea that he was terrorizing these tykes – and, by the standards of the law, exposing himself to them and drawing much more severe charges.  That moment, Jimmy concludes, inflicted upon him the stifling, small existence that he’s been immersed in ever since.  As he stalks out of the bingo game, he gives every appearance of leaving that world behind.

That impression is strengthened by his week-long return to Cicero to visit Marco, who it becomes apparent is actually the best friend that Jimmy has ever had.  Like Jimmy, his portly friend has become trapped in a small life himself, doing standpipe work for his brother-in-law that he finds profoundly unsatisfying.  The two fall back into their small-time grifter act quickly, hustling bar strangers with schemes ranging from an alleged rare JFK half-dollar coin to an apparently pre-Internet version of the Nigerian prince scam.  Along the way, Jimmy also impersonates Kevin Costner to get in a woman’s drawers – a feat which he would later boast about on Breaking Bad!  Or was it earlier, since the Breaking Bad episode aired a few years ago despite being several years in the future from then?  Wow, Gould, Gilligan and the crew can really jerk with one’s perception of the space-time continuum!

When Jimmy retrieves several voicemails and wakes up to his responsibilities to his clients back home, he prepares to say goodbye to Marco again.  Strangely, it’s only in this moment when Jimmy bothers to mention to Marco that he’s become a lawyer.  Marco assumes that he’s living the “streets paved with gold” existence and cannot understand why Jimmy is not when he sets the record straight.  Regardless, Marco doesn’t want to let him leave before pulling their favorite scam, the one involving the Rolex being taken off of the (apparently) dead guy.  Jimmy is resistant, but he gives in, only to face tragedy: Marco, who had been prone to a bad-sounding cough during Jimmy’s visit, delivers one more before collapsing for real.  When Jimmy realizes what’s going on, he halts the scheme and calls for an ambulance, but it’s too late.  Before passing away from a heart attack, Marco tells Jimmy that he’s just had the best week of his life.  The moment is even more poignant for the disappointment that Jimmy had caused Marco by returning to town for his mother’s funeral and, due to Chuck’s disapproval, not looking up Marco at the time.

Jimmy stays in town long enough to pay his respects to his close friend and is given a ring by Marco’s mother.  He also receives a call from Kim, who informs him that the Sandpiper case is actually too much for a firm the size of HHM to handle.  They have an offer to become a junior partner in the case from a larger firm in Santa Fe called Davis and Main – and thanks to the seniors’ abiding love for Jimmy and some nudging from Howard and Kim, Davis and Main are interested in hiring Jimmy and dangling a potential partnership in front of him.  Jimmy is grateful for Kim’s help, but is strangely subdued in his acceptance of the meeting that has been offered to him.  The viewer is left with the question of whether Jimmy was just contemplative after Marco’s funeral or whether the offer itself is fully satisfactory to him.

Upon his return to Albuquerque, before Jimmy drives to the meeting, he parks near his brother’s house and watches approvingly as his friend Ernie from HHM makes his delivery to Chuck.  After Ernie leaves, Chuck notices out the front window that Jimmy is sitting there, but the moment passes as Jimmy then drives away.

The meeting with Davis and Main is scheduled at the courthouse, so Jimmy passes by Mike at the toll booth on his way to park the car in the garage.  As he’s walking toward the biggest (legal) opportunity that he’s ever had within his grasp, he pauses and glances down at Marco’s ring.  And then he starts walking back to his car!  What an unbelievable touch, characteristic of this great show, for Jimmy’s decision to essentially abandon any pretense of morality to be rooted in some small way in loyalty toward his friend’s ethos.  Surely ethicists will be debating the meaning of that moment for the next 100 years.

Mike is amused to see him departing the garage so quickly and he breezily offers to drop the charge for such a small time.  Jimmy’s mind, however, is focused on a much more serious thought: specifically, his major ethical conundrum of Season 1.  He asks Mike about the stolen Kettleman fortune that was being held by them.  He wonders what made them return it.  Mike replies simply that he did the job that he was paid to do, nothing more, nothing less.  For Jimmy, who’s spent ten years trying to live down his “Slippin’ Jimmy” past and be the kind of guy who always does the right thing only to have his brother doubt his character in the end, the answer is clear.  “I know what stopped me.  And it’s never stopping me again.”  And in that moment, Jimmy joins Marco on the other side and Saul is born.

For as much as Breaking Bad was first and foremost a show about the ongoing madness and chaos fomented by Walter White’s bad choices, it was also a remarkable study of the characters in his personal and criminal lives.  In extrapolating the backstory of Walt’s lawyer Saul Goodman, it was initially unclear which element would predominate the spinoff, the wildness or the rich character exploration.  As the finale demonstrated from start to finish, the emphasis was always going to be on the latter.  You could have fit all of the big adrenaline moments of this season into about 2-3 episodes of Breaking Bad and the finale was completely devoid of them, save for Marco’s collapse.  But Better Call Saul managed all throughout the season and in the finale to extract the pieces of the story being told around Walt during Breaking Bad and add a microscopic focus to them.  Certainly, Breaking Bad never had a season finale that climaxed with something as banal on paper as a man making a philosophical statement at a toll booth.  At the same time, it wouldn’t have fit with the story if it had.  Conversely, the end of Season 1 of Better Call Saul fit like a glove with the story being told all along and the distinct flavor that this prequel delivered in its first campaign was quite satisfying indeed.

 

Better Call Saul 1-9

Photo Courtesy of AMC

 

Warning: Spoiler Alert

The one constant in the initial season of Better Call Saul has been the notion that Jimmy McGill – who shares his brother’s essential decency, deep-down, but has had to live down his grifter “Slippin’ Jimmy” youth – will do the right thing when it really counts, saving life, limb and long jail sentences in a pinch.  But at every turn, you can see the seeds of Saul taking root in the cynicism of the realization that, sometimes, it really is true that no good deed goes unpunished.

And while Jimmy threw back quite a lot when he refunded the dirty money from the Kettlemans – the fancy office and the seed money for significant expansion – he has much more at stake with his play against Sandpiper Crossing now that Chuck upped the ante in the case to a $20 million ask.  More than any other case in his career, this opportunity – obtained almost by chance, but developed through the tireless if shady means of investigation – represents the game-changer that he’s been seeking all along.  The loss of this shot would be enough to permanently embitter a great many people, not just somebody whose future we know will come from the ashes of burned-out dreams like Jimmy’s.

In Episode 1.9, Pimento, the most likely cause of Jimmy’s slide into the moral abyss comes into view for the first time, as the puzzle pieces from cold opens throughout the season begin to fit together.  In this cold open, Jimmy and Chuck are sitting outside in the aftermath of the last episode in wonderment about Chuck “surviving the electromagnetic radiation” of the atmosphere.  Their discussion leads to Jimmy’s successful denial of the restraining order that the nursing home tries to put on him; however, as Chuck points out later on while sifting through the opposing law firm’s document dump, the other side can decimate them in a war of attrition due to their lack of manpower.  Jimmy needs, Chuck declares, his own big guns: HHM.

It’s interesting that a lot of Internet speculation after Episode 1.8 surrounded HHM somehow managing to steal this huge case from Jimmy and that development becoming the cause of his deviation from the path of good.  As such, it was a refreshing twist from the writers for Jimmy to accede, fairly readily, to doing business with “the devil,” as he characteristically refers to Howard.  As Jimmy mentions the chance of getting an office next to his brother, Chuck gives a bit of an odd look.  FORESHADOWING!  Later, wielding a space blanket, he secretly uses Jimmy’s phone to make a mysterious call.

The next day, at Jimmy’s suggestion, Chuck somehow wedges the space blanket under his suit for the meeting at HHM.  Before the brothers McGill arrive, Howard arranges for all cellphones to be gathered and put away, along with the killing of all electricity.  When Jimmy and his big brother walk in the lobby, they are greeted by a company-wide standing ovation for an obviously-moved Chuck.  The meeting itself with Howard and his key associates proceeds very smoothly – one might almost think TOO smoothly – when Howard agrees to provide Jimmy with 20% of the final settlement and a $20,000 of counsel payment in lieu of a finders fee.  But when Jimmy asks about the location of his office, Howard clears the room for a private conversation, trying gently to tell Jimmy that the firm is not taking on new associates, regardless of circumstances.  He nods apologetically to Chuck about the decision being made by the partners in his absence, a detail that proves vital to the episode’s devastating, climactic scene.  From there, acrimony rages, as Jimmy angrily tells Howard that HHM will never get his case.  Later, when Kim tries to plead his case to Howard, she gets nowhere and Howard actually becomes quite condescending with her.  But as she leaves, he asks her to stay and close the door, for purposes left unanswered at the time.

Whatever she’s told – and by the end of the episode, it seems quite clear – her viewpoint has changed by the time she catches up with Jimmy back at the nail salon.  For the shot at good, guaranteed money and the chance to get out of his brother’s shadow, she urges him to take the deal.  Feeling betrayed by one of the only people close to him, Jimmy erupts at her, sending her away.  But her advice stirs some thoughts in his head and by the time he starts to wonder about why his cellphone had all the juice run down, he’s beginning to put the pieces together.  Interestingly, again, much Internet speculation had Kim – who doesn’t seem to have quite the depth of feelings for Jimmy that he does for her – being the source of his downfall, perhaps in the form of betraying him to get ahead at HHM.  That would have been more of a conventional story to tell.  But this way, with her being the catalyst for him figuring out the awful truth, was infinitely better.

He then makes a visit to Chuck that seems no different from any of the rest, but devolves into something else altogether quickly.  He surprises his brother by indicating that Kim convinced him to take the deal, before revealing that he did some research and learned that Chuck used his phone to call Howard the night before the meeting.  Connecting dots from the flashback in the previous episode, Jimmy deduces that Howard was quick to throw cold water on the notion of hiring him years before because Chuck himself didn’t want him around.  Confronted with the truth, Chuck shockingly connects dots to earlier flashbacks, proclaiming that he knows that his younger brother is and always will be “Slippin’ Jimmy.”  He sneers at Jimmy’s distance learning law degree and exclaims that Jimmy becoming an attorney is like “a chimp with a machine gun.”  Chuck is both resentful that Jimmy thinks that having a law degree makes them peers in any way and protective of what he sees as the sanctity of the law, so the reveal that he has been the force standing in the way of Jimmy’s potential opportunities at HHM all along is quite devastating.  Quietly, Jimmy informs Chuck of the supplies that he has brought to him and indicates that they will be the last.  As Jimmy is making the agonizing departure from the home of the brother that he has relentlessly protected and been betrayed by, Chuck calls after him in vain.  Clearly, he does not want a rupture with his brother and also, knowing that he’s not fully “recovered,” he knows that Jimmy’s been his crucial lifeline.  But, you can’t really expect that to continue once you’ve kicked your brother’s nards clear up into his esophagus, so other means of survival are going to have to be arranged – quickly.

Jimmy’s digestion of this season’s most bitter pill coincides with Mike’s first work in the Albuquerque underground, dealing with literal pills.  Having obtained a puppy from the vet for his granddaughter – no doubt as a cover for future visits to the vet for job assignments – Mike is recruited as bodyguard for a nerdy, first-time pill peddler with a code name of “Price.”  It’s supposed to be a three-man job, but one would-be tough guy instigates a fight with Mike that, naturally, ends poorly for him and the other specimen – a real mountain of a man – flees Mike in the aftermath.  So it’s just Mike accompanying Price to the drop with a crew led by Nacho.  It’s all tying back together, kids!

[By the way, the episode title takes its name from Mike’s previously-identified love of pimento sandwiches.  The wannabe tough guy queries him about what he’s holding, whereupon Mike identifies the sandwich in lieu of weaponry.  When asked about what he’d use to shoot with, Mike reveals his willingness to take guns from the loudmouth and, when challenged, proceeds to brutally do just that.  Beware of the guy you so casually referred to as “Uncle Fester,” jerk!]

When Price counts the money, he finds that he’s been shorted by a mere $20 and he’s about to let it go, but Mike insists that every dime be paid to them.  Nacho readily agrees and they all depart peacefully after the transfer.  Price wonders about how Mike knew that Nacho would knuckle under and Mike reveals his massive research, including the tidbit about Nacho working this deal on the side from his crime associates.  He wanted the deal to go through, regardless, and he wanted it to proceed quietly and smoothly.  Such preparation, Mike indicates, is key to “the life.”  We know that Mike is only going to get deeper into it and the tie to Nacho will be the first step in what might be a long road leading to Gus Fring.  Based on the professorial nature of the conversation after the drug deal, Price might become a fixture on the scene as well.

So now Mike’s origin story is pretty well advanced and it seems that Jimmy’s is catching up rapidly.  For his whole life, he’s been subduing his baser instincts to pursue the respect of a brother who clearly has very little for him.  Throughout the initial season of Better Call Saul, Jimmy McGill has dealt with roadblocks, sidetracks and setbacks in his pursuit of a better life.  Now he deals with actual heartbreak, stemming from acute betrayal.  For the first time, we have a Jimmy McGill with nothing left to lose, because according to his own brother he doesn’t have a good name and he never will.  Essentially, the disabled Chuck has been revealed as the true Big Bad of Season 1, not the smarmy Howard, who may in fact be the decent guy that he’s portrayed himself as all along.  Now the acceleration of the negative feelings coursing through Jimmy will propel this show into what should be a very consequential and incredible first-season finale.

 

Better Call Saul 1-8

Photo Courtesy of AMC

Warning: Spoiler Alert

As is often noted, real life is messy.  It doesn’t tend to move in straight, uninterrupted lines.  That’s why, for as much people may complain about it, Hollywood does try to fit the stories that emerge from it into various formulas.  They’re cleaner and more easily understood by the masses.

For that reason, a very underrated element of Better Call Saul has been the amazing realism of the character arc of Jimmy McGill.  While the ultimate progression from Jimmy to Saul figures to parallel the Walter White-to-Heisenberg journey, this one has moved more in zigs and zags.  There have been a few times in this space this season where the definitive transition was asserted to be underway — only to have the story proceed to defy easy categorization and still remain very logical.  That is a true indicator of state-of-the-art storytelling.

As such, with the success that Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan and Company have had in keeping their cards close to the vest, it’s now officially futile – as well as not even a satisfying parlor game anymore – trying to guess what’s going to be Jimmy’s big transformative event.  Actually, the way that matters are playing out, maybe the Powers That Be are really going to defy TV’s well-established tropes and let a series of loosely-connected incidents serve as the collective tipping point.

So there will be absolutely no guesses here about the part that Episode 1.8, Rico, plays in the eventual journey.  It is interesting to note, however, that an interesting merger was on display: Jimmy’s earnest care advocacy married to the no-holds-barred legal warfare of Saul.  Those who enjoyed the confluence may well see more of it.

Rico unfolds with another Jimmy-flashback, the third episode to contain such a cold open so far.  This one shines a great deal more light on the origins of Jimmy’s hatred for HHM and Howard Hamlin in particular: while working a mailroom job there several years earlier, Jimmy took law classes unbeknownst to those around him and (eventually) passed the bar.  In terms of rewards, Meatloaf would have been proud of Jimmy, because two out of three wasn’t bad: an excited kiss from Kim and words of great respect from Chuck versus Howard’s rebuff of a legal job at the firm.  Actually, in considering Jimmy’s countenance after Howard’s kick in the gut, maybe Meatloaf’s philosophies on life aren’t really applicable to the Albuquerque legal scene.

As such, you had to admire Jimmy’s restraint in not reacting viscerally to seeing Howard’s smug mug on TV announcing the Kettleman plea bargain – but the man of the (old) people was busy gladhanding at the Sandpiper Crossing elderly facility en route to a visit with his client, Mrs. Landry.  An otherwise nondescript meeting ends with her inability to scrape up enough money to pay him, attributing her trouble to her meager “allowance.”  Upon further investigation, Jimmy learns that Mrs. Landry’s Social Security check and other funds are being dispersed directly to the home, with a tiny amount being allotted directly to her.  A brief canvassing of other elderly ladies and gents turns up additional such cases, but the facility takes note of his efforts.

When Jimmy visits Chuck, the older brother rails at him for the attempted manipulation of involving him in the casework, but his confirmation that Jimmy is on to something with Sandpiper demonstrates that Jimmy’s method is proving successful.  However, upon returning to the home, Jimmy is denied access to his clients and, hearing shredding underway, he scribbles a furious demand on toilet paper (!) that the home cease and desist all attempts to defraud his clients.  His later foraging through the Sandpiper dumpsters – a truly brave tactic at a place that surely must house countless incontinent patients – yields armfuls of shredded documents.  While he is conducting his search, he receives a phone call from a smarmy Sandpiper attorney who parries Jimmy’s accusations while offering veiled threats about the consequences of a frivolous lawsuit.  He takes the shreddings to Chuck, who is at first impatient with his behavior – but Chuck comes through when an exhausted Jimmy falls asleep, actually piecing together several actual papers from the scraps.

From there, Jimmy tries to redeem the Kettleman IOU with Kim, asking for her to research and make copies of a lot of legal records.  She counters that such a move would invariably get her in trouble, as everyone at the firm has a code for the copier and the work is not company business.  Chuck tells Jimmy to supply his code, which only makes Kim more nervous, since there’s no way that Howard would sit still for Chuck’s return to the legal arena being in the service of his still-wannabe younger brother.  But she acquiesces, setting the stage for quite a reaction by Howard down the road.

As soon as the brothers McGill have had a chance to assemble their declaration of war, it is faxed to the Sandpiper attorneys, resulting in a visit from them.  Admitting to some “accounting errors,” the lawyers offer a lowball settlement of $100,000 – whereupon Jimmy delivers a bravura performance, listing all of the wrongdoing suffered by the victims.  He tops off his rant with a note that the company is purchasing syringes from Nebraska – bringing the legal notions of interstate commerce and RICO potentially into play.  Jimmy mentions the term “treble damages,” which leads the Sandpiper hired guns to assume that the counter-offer is going to be in the six figures – whereupon Chuck, who has sat mute this entire time, blurts out a demand for $20,000,000, thus ending the meeting.  Jimmy is incredulous, but he agrees to follow Chuck’s gameplan, simply because he’s happy to have his brother back in the game.  A further sign of Chuck’s progress comes when he decides to retrieve a document from Jimmy’s car and simply goes out and gets it before realizing, with an incredulous Jimmy in the doorway, what he’d been able to do.  However, Chuck’s inscrutable expression, somewhere between joy and horror, delivers a wordless cliffhanger about the status of his psychological disease.

In terms of time spent, Mike’s story proved a minor subplot, but it was very important in establishing once and for all how the former cop became The Cleaner.  Upon learning of the financial difficulties of his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, Mike looks up the vet who treated him in Five-O and asked if the shady money-making opportunities were still available.  Here’s hoping that the vet hooks him up with Gus Fring sooner rather than later.

So with only two episodes left in the maiden season, the trajectory of Jimmy McGill remains anyone’s guess.  He immediately replaced the Kettleman case with Sandpiper and drew his brother back into action, setting up possible conflict with Howard.  His one-time and future co-worker Mike is now moving decisively into his action-packed future.  And Nacho is still out there in the wind, dissatisfied with Jimmy’s previous help.  It’s difficult to imagine how the disparate threads might all tie together at this point, but if they do, this season actually has a good chance to be rated by many as ahead of Breaking Bad through one campaign.  Who would have imagined that as recently as the beginning of February?

Better Call Saul 1-7

Photo Courtesy of AMC

 

Warning: Spoiler Alert

The first half of the initial season of Better Call Saul seems to have generally exceeded the expectations of most fans and critics.  With a show as overwhelmingly loved and respected as Breaking Bad, the natural fear that many had was that Saul’s prequel would fail to live up to the impossible standard that had been set.  Instead, the creative team wisely didn’t deviate from many of the core features of the original – from cinematography to the excellent dialogue and acting – and merely fine-tuned them to be appropriate to the story of Saul Goodman, which is of course going to be lighter than the story of Walter White.  Essentially, so far, it’s been everything that you loved about Saul from Breaking Bad with the same elements and landscape in place to be able to tell his story.

But last week’s episode, Five-O, was on an entirely different level in terms of public regard.  With its emphasis on the backstory of Saul’s partner-in-crime, Mike the Cleaner – which had been very lightly covered through the first five editions – Five-O was by far the closest in overall tone and content to Breaking Bad.  Hitfix, only quasi-facetiously, inquired about whether it was the best or one of the best episodes in TV history.  As such, since this episode is unlikely to be typical of what the creators are going for with this series, returning so closely to the formula of a show that is supposed to be dead and buried will have to be regarded, in the parlance of gamers, as a “cheat code” if it is deployed too often – as absolutely unbelievable as the show definitely was.

But for anyone expecting a throwback to the time before Mike’s past was revealed, Episode 1.7, Bingo, disproves that thought, or fear, as the case may be – because it’s clear now that with what Jimmy and Mike went through with the Philadelphia investigation that they’ve crossed over to a place where you don’t have to squint too hard to see their Breaking Bad relationship forming.

In the cold open, in the aftermath of Mike’s almost-full confession to his daughter-in-law about his past misdeeds and how he avenged Matty’s murder, Mike sends Jimmy away after he returns the notebook “that he found in the parking lot.”  The game of good-cop, bad-cop that the visiting police are playing turns out to be a bluff, as the older and gentler law enforcement officer privately lets Mike know that many on the force know what happened and are fine with how Mike handled it.  Afterward, Jimmy chastises Mike for continuing the meeting without him, but Mike calmly lets him know that the matter has been settled.  Miffed at Mike’s attitude, Jimmy lets him know that a bill will be coming shortly – but the manner that it ends up taking is completely unpredictable.

The first of the many spaces focused on in the episode comes into play when Jimmy visits his brother and finds him in a different part of the house – one where Chuck says that he’s partially exposed to outside electromagnetic radiation.  He’s spending brief segments of time in that room, “building up immunity to the poison” so that he can start to make headway in beating his affliction once and for all.  With full knowledge that Chuck is acting out of delusion, but with gratitude that his brother is trying in his own way to get better, Jimmy earnestly congratulates him for his efforts.  Claiming that his office is overcrowded with files due to his rapidly-growing eldercare practice, Jimmy leaves some boxes behind at Chuck’s house – and Jimmy is glad to peer through the window and see that Chuck is leafing through them, knowing that his brother will have an interest in helping him out and making more strides toward becoming the legal force that he used to be.

The next space to come into play is the fancy new office suite that Jimmy is eyeballing.  He walks an impressed Kim through the place and offers her a corner offer with an incredible view if she will become his partner.  Though flattered, she points out how invested she is at HHM – from the law school debt that she incurred to them to her (optimistic) two-year track to partnership.  Jimmy is unsurprised, though disappointed.

Whatever personal feelings that Jimmy has for Kim – and they do seem to be there, on some level – he knows that she’s a great catch professionally as well, as she tries her best to demonstrate to the Kettlemans.  She tells them that Craig is staring down the barrel of a 30-year sentence, but thanks to her efforts, she can get that down to 16 months with a full return of the money.  However, Betsy is defiant, denying that they have any embezzled money and demanding that Kim agree to take the case to trial and deliver an acquittal.  When Kim is unwilling to do so, Betsy fires her and the Kettlemans storm out – although it’s worth noting from the body language that Craig doesn’t seem completely on board with his wife’s insanity, but is too much of a coward to challenge her.  When a groveling Howard is unable to bring them back, his glare towards Kim indicates that she’s about to be scapegoated, proving Jimmy’s point that the corporate firm will never appreciate her as he does.

At this point, it’s pretty obvious what will happen next.  While MC’ing a vigorous game of bingo down at the nursing home as he trawls for new clients, Jimmy receives a call from the Kettlemans seeking a sit-down.  When they meet again at the diner, it’s clear that the power dynamic has changed completely from the first meeting.  The Kettlemans, sheepish at having dumped Jimmy for the power law firm, now want him back, but Jimmy doesn’t see how they would fit in with his new, more respectable law practice.  He tries to convince them to return to Kim, who in another part of the space theme has been exiled to a crummy office as punishment for losing the Kettlemans by Howard.  Jimmy even sneaks off to make a phone call to Kim in the bathroom as he tries to pawn them back off onto her, trying to kill two birds with one stone.  Eventually, though, back at the table, Betsy loses patience with the attorney that she says “already took a retainer” from them and indicates that he’ll be implicated for knowingly taking dirty money if they go down.  At this point, Jimmy is resigned to his fate.

Sensing that Jimmy wasn’t looking to steal her client, Kim is not bitter, but does tell Jimmy that they are guilty as sin and reminds him that the children will be the ones to suffer when the big sentence is levied.  In going through the case files, Jimmy is initially lost when trying to devise a strategy – until he decides to think outside the box in a manner consistent with the later Saul and inconsistent with Chuck’s ethics: he retains Mike to locate the money and break in and take it.  This proves to be the means by which Mike and Jimmy square up for the legal advice on the Philly cop killings.  The caper is as thrilling as any that Mike ever executed on Breaking Bad.  Once Jimmy adds the $30,000 that he took from the Kettlemans to the stash, he sends Mike to return it to the authorities while he visits his demented clients.

At the Kettleman house, Jimmy tells them what happened.  After frantically dashing to check for the money, the outraged Kettlemans continue to try to fight their way out with Jimmy, but he tells them that they’re legally surrounded.  As deep in denial as ever, Betsy refuses and refuses to back down until Craig – realizing that Jimmy will implicate Betsy for proffering the bribe if they play hardball with him – convinces Betsy that the children need to have at least one parent out of jail.  Jimmy delivers the Kettlemans to a grateful Kim for the execution of her deal with the DA.  Hopefully, this is not the last of Betsy Kettleman on the program, because we need to see the evolution of her story, especially if it’s revealed that her business mentor is Breaking Bad’s Lydia.

Back at the expansive office space that he envisioned sharing with Kim, a sad and frustrated Jimmy eventually breaks down, giving in to dissatisfaction about his inability to improve his circumstances.  But then the phone rings and he’s back to answering it in the chipper faux voice of a classy receptionist, showing the kind of resilience that’s already become his trademark.  Through more than 2/3 of this season, the tug-of-war between his good side (Jimmy) and his shady side (Saul) has raged back and forth.  We know that he ends up as Saul and almost assuredly based on their absence from Breaking Bad, without Chuck and Kim by his side.  Whether this final jolt is what pushes Jimmy to put his conscience on the back burner will probably be established shortly.

And now Jimmy and Mike have been integrated as working partners, albeit on two separate matters that each still regards as isolated instances.  However, in the final three episodes of the first season of the program, the merger of their efforts is bound to increase and in all probability will lead to a conclusion of the campaign that crafts its own strong identity while leveraging the Saul/Mike caper goodness from Breaking Bad.  Most fans would probably call that a win-win situation.

 

Better Call Saul 1-6

Photo Courtesy of AMC

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Notwithstanding the greatness of Bob Odenkirk and his Saul Goodman character, the intrigue that Breaking Bad fans felt for Better Call Saul wasn’t limited to the series lead.  The return of the Mike the Cleaner character that Jonathan Banks inhabited so well was also a point of great anticipation.  Saul and Mike certainly went through their ups and downs on the original series, but their professional skill sets were a perfect match.  The first half of Season 1 of this prequel focused, understandably, on the backstory of Saul, still known in ’02 by his birth name of Jimmy McGill.  The few glimpses of Mike were tantalizing in their promise of what would start to unfold when the writers turned their glances his way.

And finally, in Episode 1.6, Five-O, that moment has arrived.  As a matter of fact, Jimmy’s appearances on his own show were limited to a single segment.  For all intents and purposes, this was the “Mike Show,” a darker piece of drama start-to-finish than this program has delivered to date.

Deploying a shaky timeline, darting to and fro, the events of Mike’s past come into sharp focus for the first time ever.  In the cold open, after getting off a train in Albuquerque for the first time, he greets a woman who is revealed as his daughter-in-law, Stacey.  He then excuses himself to obtain tampons from a dispensing machine in the women’s restroom, before entering a stall in the men’s room to apply them to an apparent bullet wound in his shoulder.  The episode is already feeling more like Breaking Bad than Better Call Saul and with all due respect to the awesome prequel, that’s a huge compliment.

At Stacey’s house, she tells him that she is haunted by the final days with her husband, Matty, Mike’s son.  He was extraordinarily moody and she overheard him having a fierce phone argument with someone that he refused to explain to her.  Mike claims ignorance of these matters and urges her to drop them, for the sake of her own sanity.  He offers to help her and her daughter Kaylee in any way that he can.  Subsequently, he makes his way to a veterinarian who provides “extra services” to get his bullet wound treated for $500 in cash.  Suspecting that Mike regularly engages in shady activities, the vet offers to find him some of that work through his friends, but Mike declines.

Flashing back to the end of the last episode, Mike is down at the station for questioning – not being held officially, but merely (so far) being asked to cooperate with two detectives from Philadelphia.  Mike demurs and slides Jimmy’s business card across the table.  This was an interesting twist, because there has been no indication yet that Mike regards the lawyer as anything much more than a clown and it seemed strange for him to entrust Jimmy with such a serious manner.

Except that, of course, Mike wasn’t bringing Jimmy in for anything more than the trademark chicanery that he associates with him.  He requests that Jimmy, after sitting through the questioning with him, dump some coffee on the detective taking notes so that he can lift said notes.  Indignant that Mike only sees him as “that type of lawyer,” he refuses … only to go along with the plan after all.  Later, Jimmy questions him about what was said in the room: Matty being ambushed on a raid … Matty’s partners Hoffman and Fenske themselves being ambushed at a later date just as Mike was relocating to New Mexico … Mike being in the throes of alcoholism after Matty’s death.  Jimmy bluntly tells Mike that the detectives seem to be under the impression that Mike killed Matty’s partners, to which Mike offers a non-denial denial.

After reviewing the pilfered notebook, Mike realizes that Stacey may have been the person who summoned the Philly police to Albuquerque for clues in the case.  She replies that in piecing together her memories, she has come to the reluctant conclusion that Matty may have been on the take.  She insists that she does not judge him for that, but Mike is vehement, angrier than he’s been in any Better Call Saul episode to date, in denying that Matty was dirty.

From there, the timeline juts again to a flashback that is not immediately identified as such.  After breaking into a police car outside of a bar populated by cops, Mike goes in and is seen getting drunk by many in the establishment – or that’s what he wants people to remember of his night there, anyway.  When Hoffman and Fenske wave him over to their table, he mumbles to them that he knows that they killed his son.  Having planted this seed, he stumbles down the street knowing that they will tail him.  They offer him a ride home and, after feigning reluctance, he gets into the car.  As they are driving, Mike is asked to elaborate on what he said earlier and he makes a full accusation – careful to maintain the appearance of intoxication, though.  Then the cops pull the car over and shiznit starts getting real, as Mike might perhaps say, but almost certainly wouldn’t.

Having taken his gun when he got into the car, for his own good, allegedly, Mike is thought by them to be unarmed.  But when they exit the car first, they aren’t able to see him pull out a second gun, which he planted earlier.  Thinking him completely inebriated, they don’t realize that he is eavesdropping as they plan to murder him to cover their tracks.  However, when they look up to find that he’s got the drop on them, it almost feels like time stands still.  And then time gives way, as it always does, and Mike guns them both down, although not before he takes, yes, a bullet in the shoulder.

With the final scene cutting back to Stacey’s house and the continuation of the earlier conversation, Mike comes clean about the circumstances with Matty.  His son wasn’t dirty, he mournfully reports – but he was, just like most of the police at the precinct.  Having been approached by his partners to take a bribe, Matty’s instinct was to report them to Internal Affairs, but Mike tried desperately to talk him out of it in the contentious conversation that Stacey had overheard.  Police fear and hate going to prison more than anything, Mike explains, and he knew that his son would immediately have a target on his head if his partners suspected that he would get them busted.  Mike’s advice to go along to get along devastated the son who idolized him.  “I broke my boy,” Mike mumbles painfully to Stacey.  “He was the strongest person that I ever knew.  I made him lesser.  I made him like me.”  And sadly, Mike’s advice was both taken – compromising Matty’s integrity – and was useless, since Matty’s hesitation in taking the bribe alarmed his partners and put the crosshairs on his head.  He was dead within 48 hours.

For Stacey, even with all of the dots apparently connected, she still couldn’t fathom how the story with Matty’s partners ended.  She asks Mike what happened to them.  “You know what happened.  The question is … can you live with it?” Mike responds.  Through it all, it seems that Mike’s guilty conscience about breaking his son’s heart, corrupting him and failing to coach him sufficiently on how to keep his partners from fearing he’d snitch on them is causing him to be harder on himself than Stacey is or will be on him, but that’s just speculation.

Breaking Bad had established previously that Mike’s corruption didn’t start in the Southwest, but was merely an amplified version of his East Coast practices.  And many observers predicted – accurately – that Mike would further be revealed to have a tragic backstory.  After all, on the final Talking Bad episode, Banks made the observation that “Mike lost his soul.”  So this episode was a rare one on television, years in the making and actually set up by another program, albeit a closely-related one.  In every way possible, the anticipation was completely worth it, delivering an emotional gut punch as it took care of the fundamentals of storytelling in fine fashion.  With only four episodes left in the debut season, Better Call Saul now has a lot of balls in the air: whatever remains of the legal cloud over Mike, Chuck’s ongoing health issues and being the fulcrum in the Jimmy/Howard struggles, the lingering background issue of Nacho’s grudge against Jimmy and, of course, the ultimate direction of Jimmy’s law practice and overall philosophy.  But the smart money would be on an intersection of these storylines and acceleration of the intensity of each.  If so, this will go down as a truly great, maybe all-time great, first season.

 

Better Call Saul 1-5

Photo Courtesy of AMC

Warning: Spoiler Alert

Coming into the halfway point of Better Call Saul’s first season, elaborate groundwork has been laid to explain the backstory of the man known as Saul Goodman from the legendary Breaking Bad series.  Viewers could reasonably extrapolate that the young Saul, then still known by his birth name of Jimmy McGill, was going to be portrayed as having the same kind of guts and guile that he would portray in his prime years as a local celebrity.  But the decency and humanity underlying the character has been greatly amplified in his backstory, portraying the tale of a man who was always a hustler – but not always crooked, if that hair-splitting distinction makes sense.

Inevitably, Jimmy McGill was going to have to start shedding the reluctance to embrace “the Saul within” and the moment that Betsy Kettleman put a handful of stolen lettuce under his nose in Episode 1.4 signaled the beginning of the path in earnest.  And now that the tableau of Jimmy’s career origin has been charted, viewers understand how the relationships around him will now be affected going forward: greater unease with his hyper-ethical-but-sidelined lawyer brother Chuck, full-on war with Chuck’s slick yuppie partner Howard and increased weirdness with apparent friend-with-benefits Kim, who works for Howard.  Plus, the dangerous Nacho wasn’t too thrilled with him the last time we set eyes upon him – and since Jimmy’s excuse for not working with him in crime was that it was beneath him ethically, Nacho’s not going to be quick to understand Jimmy’s transformation – so that’s not going to be good for business.

In short, although Better Call Saul had a hard act to follow in Breaking Bad, it also had a much lower bar of expectations, since Saul’s transformation from comic relief on that show couldn’t be assumed.  But with the depth of storytelling that was provided coming into Episode 1.5, Alpine Shepard Boy (named for one of the collectibles being left in a will by one of Jimmy’s new elderly clients), it’s clear that the prequel is going to have a web of intrigue no less compelling than the original.

However, while Jimmy’s acceptance of the Kettleman cash marks his first step towards “breaking bad” in his own right, the immediate aftermath of his billboard scam is something of a retreat back towards the mundane.  Granted, the hucksters who seek him out to represent them repel him quickly (a fan of secession who wants to pay with his own, personally-branded currency and an obtuse family man trying to patent a “sex toilet”) and as such, the safe haven of handling wills and living trusts at least offers the potential of the stability that his career has yet to produce.  His film study of the sartorial choices of TV character Matlock, combined with his decision to start advertising at the bottom of Jello cups and his nursing home trawling for clientele provides a glimpse into “the Saul path not chosen,” if indeed it weren’t.  But we know that it will be.

And when it happens, sticking it to the likes of Howard Hamlin may well be a prime motivation.  The flashpoint between Jimmy and Howard flares again after the police visit Chuck.  It seems that the old lady across the street, lacking any sense of proportion, dropped a dime on him for taking her newspaper.  Chuck does not want the police in his home, simply because he doesn’t want any change in his routine, but when they are confused and disturbed by some of the anti-technology tools that they spot through the window, the front door comes down and the poor man’s resulting panic attack puts him in the hospital.  Kim learns of this via a call from Howard and she kayfabes her partner with the assurance of “telling Jimmy when she finds him,” as he is in fact in the middle of painting her toenails at the Asian salon after hours.  Once Jimmy and Kim arrive at the hospital, the younger brother tries to turn off all of the technology in the room, alarming the doctors until Kim intercedes.  Jimmy and Chuck try to calmly explain the “medical condition,” which one of the doctors proves is psychosomatic by turning on technology (unbeknownst to Chuck) that does not affect him adversely as Jimmy watches.  Nevertheless, Jimmy is very defensive and protective of Chuck and shows greater signs of buying into his brother’s issue as a legitimate malady than we have seen before.  It’s clear that Kim, who has been known to roll her eyes at his antics, is impressed by his efforts, as she is also very fond of Chuck – who it should be assumed has treated her very well at work over the years.  In the hallway, a doctor tries to convince Jimmy to have Chuck institutionalized so that he can hopefully be cured – to no avail, until Howard shows up on the scene.  Bristling at his brother’s partner’s attempts to insert himself into the situation, Jimmy threatens to have Chuck committed so that he can obtain power of attorney and force the cash-out from the law firm.  However, when Kim confronts him privately about acting for the wrong reason, Jimmy admits that he was just trying to put a scare into his adversary.  Later, at home, in trying to ease Chuck’s mind somewhat, Jimmy assures Chuck that he’s not backsliding to “Slippin’ Jimmy,” notwithstanding the billboard matter.  Chuck seems to remain somewhat dubious.

Also somewhat resistant to buy in to Jimmy’s charms is his later cohort, Mike the Cleaner, still Mike the Ticket-taker at this point.  Now that Jimmy knows of Mike’s Philly cop background, he’s friendlier to the old guy, but the attitude is not really reciprocated.  Speaking of the Philadelphia days, after mysteriously tailing a young woman, the police show up on Mike’s doorstep – neatly bookending the episode with such visits – along with someone who Mike appears to recognize from the East Coast era.  And that’s where they leave us.

Ultimately, the creative team threw in some nice misdirection early on with the scammers and weirdos looking to retain Jimmy’s services.  Viewers appeared to be seeing a continuation of Jimmy’s path from last week (“upon this rock I will build my church”), only to find him retrenching a bit to a more stable if boring path when the old folks seemed a safer bet.  But his forthcoming involvement in Mike’s matters – which will be the culmination his own backstory – should help speed the tale further down the destination to Saultown in the second half of the initial season.

In the end, this episode was more of a place-setter, with less forward action than any of the others to date.  However, fans of Breaking Bad are used to seeing the creators insert such chapters into the show as a means of pacing and if anything, it’s to their credit for waiting this long and spending four episodes driving the plot forward relentlessly.  So while it didn’t have any scenes with the raw excitement of Tuco’s desert abduction or the pulse-pounding billboard climb, it served its purpose.  And by the looks of the preview for next week, which will apparently be very Mike-heavy, business is about to pick up again very quickly.