Better Call Saul: The Significance Of Spaces

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Better call saul
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.


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