Breaking Bad – Say My Name

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Many folks herald Breaking Bad as the greatest television show in the history of television. I wouldn’t go so far. It was successful in developing a narrative that rewarded its audience and grew along with its popularity. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, it’s a show that began slow. It certainly managed to enhance its narrative velocity throughout its five-season run, but there was an undeniable lull during the earliest episodes. Its biggest success rested in the show-runners – and creator Vince Gilligan – outlining how they wanted the story to end. The network had no opportunity to milk the show – keep it on life support while the numbers were good – until it fell into relative obscurity (think Dexter or True Blood).

Sure, we would all have gleefully sat through an additional three seasons of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman dodging bullets and escaping the guillotine, but a poorly-resolved narrative condemns a story to the realm of ‘the forgettable.’ We remember Breaking Bad because the story respected its audience. It was designed to be a complete story, not a money-maker – and that’s why it’s such a profoundly successful money-maker. The competition between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ destroys most shows, most books, and a lot of popular art. Focus groups and ratings have a direct influence on the direction many of our stories go – seeking to please audiences rather than impact them.

Focus groups are as effective as the SAT’s in measuring success – which is to say, they don’t measure success. In many cases, they destroy it. Breaking Bad is one of the greatest examples of long-form story-telling specifically because it didn’t allow itself to be influenced by outside, disaffected parties. It took risks. It reminded audiences that creativity and ingenuity can allow a television show to achieve as much – if not more – than feature-length films. Breaking Bad inaugurated the wave of cinema-quality television we’re now experiencing.

And hindsight is 20/20. If we can be genuinely objective, Better Call Saul is better at the job of character development and story-telling than Breaking Bad ever was. Artists – and the writers in their ranks – evolve. In Saul, nothing is taken for granted in it’s production. Breaking Bad, the early years, has the tainted film of “this might not be picked up for another season” written all over it. Better Call Saul is infinitely more confident in it’s story-telling – in a way that audiences have never seen. Sure, it could be canceled at any time, but it’s obvious that the writers know precisely where they’re going with their characters. They have to be, because half of these characters already exist in the Breaking Bad series.

With the ultimate fate of the principle characters an already-known quantity, the writers of Better Call Saul have been working on – and achieving – a heightened level of story-telling, the likes of which we have never, in the history of books, movies, or television, ever seen. It’s pretty damn cool.

Keep your eyes open. Look at the quality. And please: Say. My. Name.

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Better Call Saul 2.09 – Nailed

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“Nailed” is about right. The screws are tightening and Better Call Saul has breached the barrier between ‘procedural’ into ‘true drama.’ This is the episode that fans have been waiting for, after a laborious – and often frustratingly tedious and long-winded – build-up. Consider the final two episodes as one long story; we’ve only seen the first act. And the gun from the Regalo Helado opening from last week? Well, we all know what happens when you introduce a gun in the first act.

The ‘Cain and Abel’ story between Jimmy and Chuck is reaching it’s apex. The connection between Mike and the Salamanca cartel is cemented, but not resolved. The spindle is turning and the yarn isn’t complete. For today, I’ll be reserving a more in-depth review until the season climax next Monday.

Any predictions?

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Better Call Saul – Expert Camera Work

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One of the better things I’ve heard somebody say recently was that “storytelling is telepathy.” I was listening to this interview with a young screenwriter and he summoned those [likely not too famous] words from author Stephen King. I enjoy the odd logic of the statement, though – somebody writes the words down, and then we absorb them when we read them and create the story in our minds. We don’t just absorb them; we become a part of the story. The inert symbols on the page, black ink on white paper, become images in our imaginations. We assign voices and details, interpretations and emotions, to the tune of elegant simplicity – black ink on white paper.

We’ve been doing it since the birth of civilization.

Cinema, a decidedly modern method of storytelling, is a little different. It’s all more specific. The images, the look of the characters and the sound of their voices – these things have all been chosen for us, by a director. In many ways, we can describe reading as more of a ‘participatory’ form of storytelling – we have to use our imaginations and help co-author the story being told – and watching film & television as more of a ‘passive’ form of storytelling. This is why we associate books with intellect and television with laziness.

This is a false dichotomy.

Good storytelling, either in print or telecast, motivates the reader (or audience member) to make decisions. Good storytelling on the screen is the kind of storytelling that rewards the audience for paying attention – to color palettes, symbolism, narrative structure, foreshadowing, and character development/evolution. Most of us recognize these things, even if we aren’t looking for them or actively thinking about them. Television shows in the last several years, it should also be noted, have achieved a level of quality and substance that rivals most mainstream feature films.

In many ways, the television series allows storytellers to exercise their talents in a way that feature film could never allow. Can a ninety minute film accomplish as much as a sixteen episode season (or an entire series)? Of course not. A television series has more time to introduce an ensemble of characters, establish their unique and individual qualities – their challenges, their strengths, their shortcomings – and bring the circumstance of their lives into clear and cutting focus.

Better Call Saul is a wonderful example of long-form story-telling. It’s one of the reasons that it’s so beloved (and simultaneously so under-appreciated, because of it’s painful rarity) in the television world. It is incredibly ‘literate’ in its approach, each episode a small little piece of a morality play, each episode a small little piece of a bigger puzzle. The most recent episode, to my mind, is one of the greatest examples of cinema-quality film-making applied to a television series, specifically because of how the opening scene is shot, choreographed, and cut.

The entire first sequence follows a refrigerated truck – presumably smuggling narcotics – across the US-Mexico port of entry. Using one camera operator, three different vehicles, and a steady-cam, the establishing shot is achieved in one single, sustained, three-plus minute shot. A ballet of vehicles and extras – law enforcement, truck drivers, perpetrators, and K-9 units – swirl around the scene. The camera glides through and captures this scene without a single cut. The trick of trying to cram non-narrative story into a long, sustained, uncut shot is as old as film itself, but rarely is it accomplished with such extraordinary finesse. The longer the camera can reveal an unfolding narrative, the less the audience is motivated – whether consciously or unconsciously – to question its authenticity. That’s because real life – our true, moment-to-moment lives – aren’t cut from angle-to-angle, perspective-to-perspective, over one shoulder and then <whack> over another shoulder. The longer the scene can go without an edit, the more we are seduced, as audience members, to believe it.

If you haven’t hopped aboard the Better Call Saul bandwagon, I suggest you give it a day in court – pun intended. Following the ‘cartel mule-truck through the port’ scene – an extraordinary achievement in television film-making – I can’t wait to see what other cards the show-runners are hiding up their sleeve.

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Other films with remarkable tracking shots (nope, can’t think of any other television shows):

  1. Boogie Nights – The opening scene starts outside the night club, tracks into the club, snakes through the seating area and onto the dance floor, and winds back out. Every single major character in the film has at least one spoken line of dialogue and the scene lasts roughly ten minutes (a so-called ‘full-film-magazine’). It is insane when you consider how hard it must have been to choreograph this.
  2. Irreversible – This is the film that can’t be un-seen. It’s one of the most grotesque and challenging-to-watch films ever made, with Gaspar Noe at the helm. The film is replete with slight-of-hand cuts (paving the way for Birdman, but taking it’s inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope) that give the illusion of long cuts, including the devastating brawl at the gay sex club in the first scene. But it’s the sexual assault scene in the middle of the film, in a dark roadway underpass, that is truly shocking. The camera sits like a fly on the wall. The graphic content of the scene makes it all-the-more uncomfortable for the audience, that the camera never blinks, never looks away, never cuts to something less awful than the brutal violation right in front of it. It’s easy to forget that this is just a movie, watching this scene. It’s hard to remember that it’s not real, that this isn’t in fact a true-to-life snuff film. This is one of the most amazing films ever made, but it comes with an asterisk – not for the weak of heart.
  3. Children Of Men – I’m not even a fan of this film. The premise is outlandish, with little or no real time spent on trying to explain how or why the characters live in a world where women simply can’t get pregnant. The idea itself is compelling, but the details are glossed-over and we’re expected to just accept that, yeah, this is the world of this film. Women ain’t gettin’ pregnant. World’s gonna end. Bummer, dude.
    Nevertheless, there is a moment in an embattled urban area, tanks creaking into the streets, in which the protagonist walks through mortar fire and military vehicles, through throngs of people, to bear witness among a huddled gathering of resistance fighters, to an infant child. The camera follows him through the streets, around tanks, amid explosions and hordes of civilians battling military personnel. The camera never cuts, and the scene is undeniably, tear-inspiringly beautiful. It’s a shame that it’s embedded in what, to me, is a muddled mess of a film. But it’s one brilliant piece of film-making nonetheless.

Can you think of any long-cuts that should be added to the pantheon? Let me know in the comments.

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Better Call Saul 2.07 – Inflatable

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This week’s episode of Better Call Saul opens in the summer of 1973, with an establishing shot of a magazine rack reminding us of the downfall of Richard Nixon. On the cover of the magazine, with Nixon’s stern portrait, the headline reads: “Can Trust Be Restored?” As the scene unfolds, we see a young Jimmy McGill, who eventually takes a hard (and wrong-headed) lesson from a grifter.

“Listen, kid. In this world there are sheep, and there are wolves.” Any Breaking Bad fan will remember that this exact line is spoken by a fully-grown Saul Goodman to Walter White and Jesse Pinkman midway through the series.

This opening scene clearly establishes young Jimmy as a preternaturally wizened student of the human carnival. He sees right through the grifter’s con, even trying to warn his father – a message that falls on deaf ears – before taking the con-man’s advice and yanking a few bucks from the till when dad isn’t looking. It’s an oddly moving scene, witnessing a twelve-year-old boy decoding the vulnerability of his father, the man who is supposed to have all the answers.

“And so we see Jimmy steal from the till, out of resolute bitterness. With a rejection of his father’s soft-hearted gullibility, and through extension the whole sucker-generation of sheep-idealists that let themselves be cheated by the wolves of violence and corruption.”

Clearly, the theme of this episode is occupied with corruption.

As an adult, we know that Jimmy McGill is incredibly good at spotting the long-con; that’s how he landed the lucrative Sandpiper class-action case and parlay that into a company car, corporate apartment, and cushy salary. He knows how criminals work because he is, in no uncertain terms, just like them. Rather than conning convenience store clerks, he has evolved into a legal animal hoping to justify his cons by going after other con artists – for the most part.

This episode sees Jimmy admitting to certain truths about himself openly. He comes clean and admits that his atrocious behavior at Davis & Main was a ploy to escape his contract (but not the signing bonus). He admits that he’s a “square peg” that needs to do his own thing. He drops the British secretary charade when he nestles back into his nail salon back-office. Kim, having absorbed Chuck’s story about Jimmy’s youthful thievery, also confronts Jimmy in more concrete terms. She cannot allow herself to partner with Jimmy and expose herself professionally to any of his shenanigans. Jimmy can sense her distrust even if he isn’t privvy to Chuck’s meddling.

Will Jimmy accept Kim’s proposal? The episode doesn’t seem to want to reveal this until next week, but my guess is that he eventually will.

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Better Call Saul 2.06 – Bali Ha’i

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“How about your payment is that you get to live?”
“Not enough.”

Mike is once again confronted with certain dangerous elements, and on two separate occasions on this week’s episode of “Better Call Saul.” What is truly fascinating about the construction of the character is that, given an event where any reasonable audience member would fear for his certain doom, we already know that Mike is going to survive – he’s already in a chronologically much-later sequence of events in “Breaking Bad.” Knowing beforehand that he’s going to make it through, the suspense is remarkably just as palpable here, as we wait to see exactly how the plodding old man manages to wriggle free from closing nets.

Mike’s apparent disregard for his own life, it must be noted, allows him to battle beyond his means. Bravery and intellect help him compensate for ‘bad knees’ and age. And his devotion to what remains of his family makes him easily the most sympathetic character of the show’s entire ensemble (he assumed the throne once Saul quit making ice & food deliveries to Chuck). The total of Mike’s written dialogue for any episode of “Better Call Saul” could be scrawled on a note-card, but a tremendous amount of his thought process is acted through body movements, eye rolls, facial expressions. What’s most interesting about Mike – a character I’ve already insisted is the most interesting character in the whole of the Gilligan-verse – is how his character seems to very closely mirror the trajectory of Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” He is a man with little or nothing to lose, willing to go to any length for his family, loses himself, and dies in the process.

It’s just a bonus to us, I suppose, that the circle finally closes with Mike dying at Walter’s hands. It’s an almost Shakespearean way for the character to die.

The connections to “Breaking Bad” have been steady over the past several episodes, including cameos of Krazy-8, last week’s introduction of Hector Salamanca, and now this week’s reintroduction of “The Cousins.” The arrival of The Cousins was like something out of a horror film, a startling moment in a television program that, thus far, has been noted for its deliberate, slow pace.

Speaking of those connections, it has dawned on me that Nacho Varga isn’t a character in the “Breaking Bad” series. I thought long and hard about this while he sat in the background at the shop at the end of this week’s episode, overseeing Mike’s meeting with Hector and The Cousins. Nacho is still stuck in the middle of all of this, and when Mike hands a conciliatory $25k bundle of bills to the side-dealing Latino, I began to immediately speculate what kind of untimely and grotesque fate awaits the man. At this point it’s just conjecture, but I suspect that Nacho isn’t going to survive the series.

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This week also finds Kimmy and Jim running an almost identical series of professional mishaps and frustrations. Kimmy suffers under the lunch-denying thumb of Howard Hamlin. Jimmy struggles under the constant and corrective watch of Davis & Main’s 2nd year stickler, a role expertly and irritatingly played-off like the most loathsome of teachers’ pets. Jimmy is miserable and resentful and Kim becomes increasingly aware of the tenuousness of her position at HHM.

In a brilliant sequence, we watch Jimmy unable to sleep in his king-sized, well-adorned corporate palace. He wrestles with the bed-sheets, kills time bowling with condiments, and eventually gives in, returning to the cramped office at the nail salon. I’m reminded of the Brooks character from “The Shawshank Redemption.” The aged criminal, finally released from his concrete cage, can’t adjust to life in the real world. He has nightmares, forgets where he is when he wakes up, and daydreams about committing a crime just so he can get back to the life he was used to at the penitentiary. In many ways, Jimmy is so used to his hand-to-mouth former life, all of the rewards of the corporate life are actually more of a burden. He’s Tom Hanks from “Cast Away,” preferring to sleep on the floor rather than the comfy pillow-top bed in his hotel suite.

This effectively illustrates how ill-suited he is to his new life, and suggests to us that he is beginning to realize he needs to find a different, more independent path.

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Up to this point in the series – and in this episode in particular – what has been accomplished is a thorough setting of the table – all the chess pieces are in place. Mike’s conflict with Hector Salamanca and the Juárez Cartel, Kim and Jimmy’s parallel dissatisfaction in their respective workplaces, and an eventual statement of purpose between the two.

All of the loose ends appear to have been trimmed, and we’re ready for the mad-dash to resolution. I don’t think that Jimmy’s coffee cup – “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” – is just a throwaway joke. Every time he sits in his fancy new car, he gets angry that it won’t fit in the cup holder. Even though the car is nice and new, and represents everything Jimmy thought he would want out of a career, it just doesn’t fit – literally. So how does he solve his problem? He breaks it. He breaks the cup-holder to make it fit. Just like he breaks any law or rule that prevents him from getting what he wants, or what he thinks he wants.

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Better Call Saul 2.05 – Rebecca

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The female characters in the works of Vince Gilligan often come to represent family, responsibility, order, and process. The audience inherently regards the Skylar White character from “Breaking Bad” with disdain, not because she is morally wrong, but because a hijinx-appreciative audience wants to watch Walter White continue on his destructive trajectory. The women who would reign in these corrupt figures are intuitively the “bad” guys.

That’s the conundrum of Kim Wexler. In many regards, we haven’t been provided the appropriate opportunity to sympathize with her, even if we recognize her as the voice of reason, perpetually trying to talk Jimmy away from bending and breaking the rules. We have seen moments of quiet intimacy between Kim and Jimmy, and we even got to watch her execute a confidence scheme in a hotel bar alongside her wayward friend. This is what elevates her from the status of Skylar White; we know that Kim is drawn to shenanigans, even has an appreciation for how artfully Jimmy is able to find his angle, but she also occupies a moral realm. She can taste the fruit, but life goes back to normal in the morning.

This week’s episode, titled “Rebecca,” gives us an opportunity to walk in Kim’s shoes for a bit, and we understand how she has come to occupy the “nagging wife” archetype. Jimmy himself is experiencing his own form of house arrest, with a new babysitter named Erin, hired specifically to shadow slippin’ Jimmy and make sure he plays by the rules. Kim’s in the dog house and Jimmy’s on a leash, and we watch as they both attempt to adapt to their new circumstance.

The cold open is a also an interesting and revealing glimpse into the past, a dinner with Jimmy and Chuck immediately following Jimmy’s move out west to begin his new career in the mail room at HHM. Chuck’s mental illness hasn’t gripped him yet. Polished utensils, chandeliers, jazz music on the hi-fi stereo adorn the scene. And we’re introduced to a new character: Rebecca, Chuck’s wife, a celebrated violinist and a personal acquaintance of Yo-Yo Ma. The scene is underplayed and deceptively simple, but what it reveals is Chuck’s refined bourgeois lifestyle being disrupted by his brother’s beer-swilling and artless boorishness.

Rebecca is taken with Jimmy’s charm, laughing at his jokes and smiling while Chuck is left aside to scowl. There is resentment, here. Jimmy has an ease and charm about himself that Chuck cannot comprehend, and certainly doesn’t appreciate. At the end of the flashback, Chuck tries telling a joke to Rebecca, hoping for a similar laughing response – but he fails. This undercurrent of anger and resentment colors the entire dynamic between the brothers, and we become much more aware of the Biblical ‘Cain and Abel’ dynamic at play.

The brothers are engaging in silent war. The book-end of the McGill conflict occurs at the end of the episode, with Chuck telling a story about his father to Kim. We learn that Chuck blames Jimmy for their father’s death, and his story is an obvious attempt to poison Kim against her friend and sometimes lover. Simultaneously, he insist that he will talk to Hamlin and try to get her out of the doc-prep dog house and back into an office. At the beginning of his sermon, he points out how destructive and self-interested Jimmy is. He ends his sermon by demonstrating that he is the only McGill that’s willing to go to bat for her. It will be some time before we see how she responds to the brothers, each yanking her in different directions.

The most interesting aspect of the episode is in it’s title, which doesn’t only refer to the introduction of Chuck’s absent wife. A.R. Magalli of CutPrintFilm astutely observes:

“‘Rebecca,’ the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier, is the story of a woman caught between fighting in the present over the wrongs of the past, largely the death of the titular Rebecca. The novel’s protagonist is used as a pawn when those devoted to the deceased try for revenge on who they feel is responsible. Here we see another Rebecca disappeared, and the man once devoted to her, Chuck, using another woman as a weapon against the man he may feel is responsible for her death or disappearance, Jimmy.”

There is little chance in the Gilligan-verse for this to be a coincidence. Painterly sweeps of light, the color palette of the offices of HHM, the connective-tissue of the narrative – all are carefully mapped-out, infusing “Better Call Saul” with a tension and an identity that sets it apart from anything else on television. This is among one of the most literate programs ever produced, asking more questions than it answers and peeling away at the layers of each individual character with slow deliberation.

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Better Call Saul 2.04 – Gloves Off

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The ‘continuity game’ with Better Call Saul is insurmountable, and this week’s episode has ratcheted-up the intrigue in new and significant ways. It also contains additional easter-eggs and call-backs to Breaking Bad (see below) to keep super-fans plugged in and on-point.

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Following their late-night meeting, we find Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) laying out his plan across the street from the El Michoacano, the Mexican restaurant where drug lord Tuco Salemanca (Raymond Cruz) holds his drop-meets. With Tuco using crystal and acting erratically, Nacho needs him eliminated before Tuco learns about his side business. As we would expect, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) opts to discard Nacho’s ‘up-close and ugly’ assassination plot for something more surgical.

It’s quite possible that Mike Ehrmantraut is the most interesting character in the Vince Gilligan universe. Like many others, his is a character with a dark history, having tumbled from potential greatness. He once failed to appreciate what he had, and tragedy knocked him down from his morally bankrupt ambition. The story of his life has been coming out in little drips, but in a uniquely satisfying way. The slow pacing of the series has helped with the tricky task of keeping the story mysterious and engaging; it doesn’t show all of its cards all at once.

In Breaking Bad we see Mike as a calm, calculated fixer in the employ of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Because of this, we can reflect back and realize that he had, at some point in his past, become connected to the Salemanca drug cartel. Could this episode reveal how Mike was first acquainted? Not exactly, but the pieces are beginning to fall into place.

In season one of Better Call Saul we learn about Mike’s previous life as a police officer, that he was a corrupt cop in a corrupt precinct, and that he’s the father of a murdered son. We learn how he truly lost his soul, drawing his own son into the department’s corruption and possibly contributing, albeit in a tertiary way, to the murder.

In season two of Better Call Saul we learn just a little bit more. While shopping for the proper sniper rifle to assassinate Tuco Salemanca, it’s revealed that Mike was most likely deployed in Vietnam. In the cheap motel room, surveying military-issue hardware, we see Mike stop short after clapping eyes on a rifle he clearly has a history with. He turns to the arms dealer – a familiar face who helped equip Walter White in Breaking Bad – and says he’s changed his mind.

Jonathan Banks’ portrayal of Mike Ehrmantraut is an achievement in acting. To play such a stern and expressionless character with such exquisite finesse requires great skill. The ocean of sadness beneath Mike’s wooden veneer was revealed last season, and the audience remembers that it’s there – hidden, but there. The flash of hesitation speaks volumes of his character, and we watch as Mike chooses to take a ruthless beating – instigating a fistfight with Tuco, essentially framing him – instead of killing. It’s an emotionally complex decision for a character to make. He could have just walked away and not taken the money, but he needs that money for his daughter-in-law (and, more importantly, his granddaughter). “Gloves Off,” plain and simple, is an amazing piece of storytelling.

To quote A.R. Magalli from ‘Cut Print Film’: “How did a surly, taciturn, ruthlessly efficient, hangdog old man get to be the most tragic character in the series? If there’s a truly sympathetic character in the Gilligan-verse, it’s the man with the blood on his hands.”

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EASTER EGGS:
1. Nacho tells Mike about when Tuco became erratic and paranoid while using “crank” and shot their supplier “Dawg” Paulson, leaving a piece of Dawg’s skull in Nacho. In “Breaking Bad” season two, episode two, Hank Schrader presents a profile on Tuco, mentioning that Tuco is “Reputed to have whacked one ‘Dawg’ Paulson.”

2. Mike keeps Tuco’s boxing gloves necklace as a souvenir after ensuring that he’ll spend a good five or so years in jail. The necklace is no late-addition; it can be seen back in season one.
Boxing Gloves
The gem-studded gloves may also signify that Tuco was a former competitor in the National Silver Gloves Tournament, an annual championship for young pugilists. I’m willing to bet Uncle Hector made sure Tuco knew how to fight.

3. In “Breaking Bad” we learn that Tuco’s time in jail was spent with Skinny Pete, which later leads to Jesse and Walt’s involvement with him.

4. Tuco deals with a nervous young man wearing a Tampico Furniture shirt, eventually dismissing him, saying “See you, Domingo.”

Domingo was first introduced to us in the pilot episode of “Breaking Bad,” but we knew him by a different moniker: Krazy-8. Tampico Furniture is owned by Domingo’s father, and we learn that Walt may have bought a baby crib from him when Walt, Jr. was born. If memory serves, Krazy-8 is the first person Walter White kills in the whole “Breaking Bad” series. Pretty wild, eh?

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