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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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 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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