Better Call Saul 2.03 – Amarillo

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“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. McGill.”

The third episode of season two, “Amarillo,” begins with Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) at his smarmiest, charm-inflicting self. Swaddled in pristine white cowboy gear, he positions himself on a street corner, looking beyond conspicuous. We already know he’s up to something – it’s just a question what, exactly, his scheme is. In this case, it’s sweet-talking the elderly – something he’s incredibly good at – in order to collect additional clients for his class-action suit. He accomplishes this by doing what he does best – twisting the rules to fit his own needs. From a plausibly deniable position, he breaks the bar association’s guidelines for client solicitation by ambushing a busload of retirement community residents.

Jimmy’s ploy is successful, and the annihilating glow of fresh new clients is enough for everybody in the conference room. That is, everybody except Chuck (Michael McKean), who knows what kind of a smooth operator his brother is. Naturally, Chuck throws a wrench in Jimmy’s machinations, forcing him to find new ways of securing clients.

Enter: local low-production commercials.

In an entertaining callback to Breaking Bad, we bear witness to a wonderful distillation of Jimmy’s core gifts: intelligence, creativity, intimate knowledge of his clients, and a knack for showmanship. It’s actually quite a treat to see how the future Mr. Saul Goodman cut his teeth in the advertising game. The commercials he makes may be grating, poorly edited, clichéd, even predictable – but Jimmy knows how predictable people can be, and he knows how to stack the deck in his favor. Knowing his production would never pass muster with his firm’s focus-group atmosphere, he does the next best thing: he goes rogue.

While wrestling with the decision as to whether or not he should run the ad without authorization, we get another subtle callback to Breaking Bad in the form of a music queue. Ominous digital drones creep into the scene, illustrating his internal struggle; this is highly reminiscent of the mood-setting tones in Breaking Bad. This isn’t an indication of moral ambiguity, but rather an indication of outright rebellion against the order of things. And we know there are going to be consequences.

Jimmy knows he’s taking a risk, just like Walter White (Bryan Cranston) knew he was taking risks. Naturally Jimmy bets on himself, and this is precisely what makes him such an appealing character. With so many forces against him – a complicated personal/professional relationship with Kim (Rhea Seehorn), a brotherly feud of biblical proportions, a fraudulent corporation, and a dangerously ambivalent attitude toward legal ethics – we want to bet on Jimmy, too. Everybody loves an underdog, even if we know that he is flat-out wrong.

When he struggles and succeeds, we smile along with him.

In a beautifully acted, wordless sequence, we watch Jimmy squirming in his office chair, staring at the silent telephone, wondering if his bet is going to pay off. He already knows his flagrant disregard of protocol can only be forgiven if the phones start ringing. Minutes pass. The scene drags out. Then the phone bank starts to fill, miraculously, and we exhale a sigh of relief. A shiny smile of self-satisfaction washes over his face.

And we smile along with him.

At the end of the episode, wreathed in calm domesticity, Jimmy and Kim snuggle on the couch to watch “Ice Station Zebra” and unwind from the day. “Anything blow up yet?” Jimmy asks, plopping onto the couch in front of the flickering television.

Not yet, but it’s safe to say something will soon.

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Better Call Saul – Jimmy’s Painting

S'all Good post

We’re only two episodes into the second season, but we can already feel how close Jimmy McGill is to leaping off the ledge. Episode two, “Cobbler,” also shows the seed of discord being sown in his relationship with Kim. Until this point, they have leaned on one another and loved one another. With Jimmy falsifying evidence to knock the police off the trail of a fumbling drug dealer, a line has been crossed.

But I want to rewind for a moment to the end of episode one. The painting in Jimmy’s office – a not too terribly subtle image of a figure tumbling backward – is a representation of Jimmy McGill standing on the precipice of moral ambiguity. More on-the-nose, it also definitely pays homage to Jimmy’s con artist days when he was “Slippin’ Jimmy” back in Cicero, taking dives on ice and banking from frivolous liability lawsuits.

The image above is a quick digital sketch I made from screen shots from the show; I couldn’t find any clear representations online to link to. The image above isn’t for sale because it’s just a replica I made of somebody else’s artwork.

The painting, titled “Geometric Abductions,” is actually made by a twenty-six year old local Santa Fe artist named Miles Toland. He’s currently directing the artist residency program and gallery at Vaayu Vision Collective in Goa, India, which is where you might scope out the impressive mural.

Geometric AbductionsToland’s art merges naturalistic human forms with transcendental designs, often incorporating elements of sacred geometry. In “Geometric Abductions,” the tumbling human form is subsumed by geometric patterns – these overlapping circles are known in transcendental literature as the “flower of life.”

This image is perfect for Jimmy McGill’s law office. In the same office is also an image of a vacant boxcar, hinting at the symbolism of standing at a crossroads. Show creator Vince Gilligan is relentlessly detail-oriented. The color palette, costume design, even books on bookshelves in the background – these details have been meticulously thought out, weaving a rich tapestry of character and back-story. Even though most of these details escape us while we’re watching, it’s this intense interest in authenticity that made “Breaking Bad” such a success, and why “Better Call Saul” has captured our imaginations.

Better Call Saul 2.02 – Cobbler

Saul Is Born post“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised I have to tell you this. But it’s probably a bad idea that you willingly talk to the police, being a criminal and all. ”

Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) doesn’t disappoint as season two inches forward. Last week, he explained his perspective clearly enough, explaining to Kim (Rhea Seehorn) that the reason he liked being a lawyer was because he likes to sell people, persuade them into believing him. He also put it bluntly, after pulling a con on a loathsome businessman at a hotel bar, that “I don’t have to be a lawyer to do that.”

But he still takes the job offer in Santa Fe, eventually. We’re left with the impression that he’s more curious than passionate about the position, but it’ll serve his interests for the time being. Company car, salary, and his own office – including an almost too ‘on-the-nose’ painting of a man slipping on ice.

This week, we see one of our first concrete glimpses into the Saul Goodman we known from “Breaking Bad.” Jimmy spins an intricately detailed fiction and sells it to the police to disrupt an investigation into his client’s extra-curricular drug dealing. How does he do it? Easy as pie – or cobbler. He invents a tale that plays into the jaded worldview police detectives: people are stupid and sick and anything, no matter how ridiculous or depraved, is possible.

Jimmy reserves the right to break all the rules, and his lies have migrated from hotel bar and into his profession. This is the first crack in the facade, and temptation is no doubt going to continue chiseling away at his already-flimsy sense of morality.

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Nebraska Life

Fallen Saul postThe return of “Better Call Saul” on Monday has seen me reacquainting myself with the show’s first season. Anybody who has been a fan of “Breaking Bad” and “Saul” will understand that most episodes warrant multiple viewings; the narratives are layered, the characters complex, and the writers go to great lengths to embed interesting symbols – easter eggs, if you will – into each episode.

It is always fun watching genre-bound comics break through with powerful dramatic performances. With a great script, rubber-faced slapstick goof-ball comedians often turn in remarkable performances. One may never have believed Jim Carrey could play a dramatic role, but “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” turned a lot of heads. Bill Burr, albeit a secondary character, was given an interesting opportunity as one of Saul’s fixers in “Breaking Bad.” Bob Odenkirk, who plays the titular character in “Better Call Saul” has himself spun some incredible magic bringing his character’s internal struggle and moral complexity to life.

There’s little doubt that “Saul” is a strong show, replete with powerful performances, but season one ended with a whimper. The writers have taken great care to make Jimmy McGill relatable, sympathetic, and three-dimensional. This is necessary if we’re to care at all as we watch his gradual descent into corruption and moral ambiguity. Nevertheless, the phenomenal performances and fascinating back-stories haven’t led to any concrete gasp-worthy moments, which is what we have been preparing for. I think this has a lot to do with the rhythms set up by “Breaking Bad,” but “Better Call Saul” has proven to be a different kind of program. The ten-episode set-up of season one didn’t lead to a satisfying catharsis, car chase, murder, or any other kind of earth-shaking revelation.

Season one of “Saul” is a sentence without punctuation. It’s a beautiful sentence, yes, but we are left without knowing quite how to feel. We know the ultimate fate of Mike Ehrmantraut. We know that Saul Goodman flees Albuquerque under an assumed identity, relegated to the life a low-rent fast food manager, always looking over his shoulder. What we don’t know is where he came from, not entirely. We’ve been provided with some interesting details, but the picture is still undeniably incomplete. What we’re still waiting for is a solid explanation: when, exactly, did Jimmy McGill ditch his birth name and become Saul Goodman? When did he lose his soul? How did he lose it? And why?

Hopefully, season two will satisfy some of these questions.

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Better Call Saul 2.01 – Switch

Saul On Knees postBetter Call Saul has a tricky, if not wholly problematic, premise. We, the audience, already know what’s at the end of the line for James McGill (a.k.a. Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk). The series begins by showing us exactly where he winds up after escaping New Mexico at the end of Breaking Bad. He is trapped and miserable in Omaha, Nebraska, paranoid, afraid for his life, working under an assumed identity at a local shopping mall. And when you already know how the story ends, great care has to be taken with the narrative in order to keep the story interesting and the characters dynamic.

Season one sets up the chess pieces, the key players, and the motivations. The themes are ultimately borrowed from Faust, the noble doctor tempted by the devil into abandoning his morals for wealth and accolades. Who the devil is in Better Call Saul, we’re not sure. There doesn’t appear to be a Mephistopheles here; the titular character is at war with himself.

Season one explains why con-artist-turned-lawyer Jimmy McGill transitions from a reformed con-artist to slithery lawyer. The first episode of season two, appropriately titled “Switch,” pushes forward. If we have already begun to understand why he abandons the idea of leading an altruistic life, the show is now beginning to show us how he does it.

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Season two picks up right where we left off, moments after Jimmy decides that he no longer needs to satisfy the wishes of his mentally ill older brother Chuck (Michael McKean). Frustrated by failed attempts at establishing a legitimate law practice, he resigns himself to living a morally ambiguous life – a life he seems much more adept at living. The episode steers into territory we’ve only experienced in small vignettes during season one. Above all else, “Switch” explores Jimmy’s relationship with Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), illuminating the nature and details of their intimacy.

The two characters live their lives in seemingly assumed roles, playing characters that aren’t true to who they really are. Jimmy is preoccupied trying to live up to his brother’s standards, and Kim is preoccupied with her professional ambitions. Beneath it all, the two characters experience a sense of freedom together that their personal and professional lives don’t allow. They become giddy, playful, and optimistic when they’re together; apart, their jobs and responsibilities bleed the enthusiasm out of them. Kim occasionally drifts out of her role to spend time with Jimmy, but always returns to the workaday world. Jimmy turns his back on the best opportunity to become a lawyer that he’s ever had – although he does, eventually, take it, and we know it won’t last.

“Switch” is a great title. It’s yet another in a parade of Vince Gilligan tropes. In this case, it refers metaphorically to the transformation of Jimmy McGill. It also refers, quite literally, to the light switch in his new office. A sign is taped over the light switch, with printed instructions to “never ever turn off.” Oppositionally defiant, Jimmy can’t help himself. He peels the tape back and flips the switch into the ‘off’ position. He looks around. Nothing has happened.

It’s a wonderful metaphor for the character. He cannot – absolute can not – abide by the rules, so he breaks them. In this instance, at the close of the episode, he flips the switch. He broke a rule and there is absolutely no consequence. If that isn’t telling, I don’t know what is.

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