Better Call Saul 3.03 – Sunk Costs

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One of the greatest assets of Better Call Saul is its treatment of time. The entire series is a framework-piece, beginning in a black-and-white sequence that takes place in the present. This divorces the narrative of Better Call Saul from its Breaking Bad roots. Then we rewind and dive into the prequel narrative, where we learn about Jimmy McGill’s apotheosis. He’s is a fallen god in the present but a serf struggling to feed himself in the beginning of his story.

It may just be possible for Better Call Saul to be both a prequel and a sequel to Breaking Bad. If audiences remain engaged and the show continues, we may just see the present-day narrative extend into the future. It’s a clever slight-of-hand that the writers are playing, and I don’t believe there’s any precedent for this kind of story-telling in television.

Like the previous two episodes of this season – and some moments from the previous two seasons – much of this episode’s story is told in montage, rather than spoken dialogue. This is a curious story-telling trick that motivates audiences to pay attention to the television and not their smart phones, to remain engaged, to empathize with the characters and guess at what they’re thinking, theorize what they’re going to do next. Just as the entire show is a framework piece, this episode functions the same way on a smaller scale, opening with the dangling red sneakers on the power lines south of the border. This opening scene foreshadows the Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) story-line, but we later realize that the scene takes place after the main events of the episode.

*The composition of the frame in the first scene even manages to conveniently crop out the toe of the shoe.
Season two already explains why Ehrmantraut has a grudge against the Salamanca cartel – Hector Salamanca had a civilian “not in the game” killed in the wake of Mike’s truck robbery – and this episode finally illustrates how Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring finally come together. The recipe is simple and as old as time:

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

The opposing narrative is more procedural and less intriguing, but we know that it’s building to something. We pick up where we left off last week, with Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) preparing to deal with the consequences of breaking into his brother’s house and destroying the recording of his confession. Chuck (Michael McKean) has clearly assembled increasingly clever plans to dismantle Jimmy’s career throughout the course of the series, and his recent trickery appears to be the last nail in the coffin – Jimmy isn’t going to forgive him. We already know that Jimmy is going to become a successful (albeit shady) attorney from the Breaking Bad story, so we aren’t overly concerned with the outcome – we’re concerned with how things unfold. All we have to do, as audience members, is wonder how exactly Jimmy is going to get back into the ring and make it happen. Chuck wants Jimmy to give up law, and we already know that it isn’t going to happen, so we wonder.

It’s a new kind of subtle suspense, and it’s a very compelling gimmick.

We all know that Jimmy McGill is a criminal, that he’s conniving and immoral. Somehow, though, we sympathize with him. We watch him struggle professionally, we watch him struggle with his older brother. We somehow want him to succeed, even though we recognize his moral bankruptcy. Television and Hollywood are replete with anti-hero stories, but Better Call Saul has tapped into the story of the anti-hero without dipping into bald-tire cliché. This story is infinitely more human in its exploration of these characters; it is, quite brilliantly, the best adaptation of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ – thematically, not literally – that television has to offer.

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Better Call Saul 3.01 – Mabel

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“Good and bad is not the same thing as legal and illegal.”

Entering its third season, Better Call Saul is much more of a slow burn compared to its Breaking Bad predecessor. This has some fans of the Gilligan-verse frustrated, hoping for the violence and action that the Walter White saga delivered, but Saul is a different animal altogether, much more patient with how it allows its characters to unfold. Ultimately I think this is a good thing. Especially considering that Better Call Saul is a prequel, because the audience already knows where most of the main characters eventually wind up – it’s important for this series to be more of a character study than a thriller.

Better Call Saul, when it was first announced, had the stink of ‘cash grab’ all over it. It was announced at the tail end of Breaking Bad, one of the most successful television shows of all time, occupying the same Breaking Bad universe. And let’s face it, when we hear the term ‘spin off,’ our hopes aren’t often that high. But show creator Vince Gilligan and partner Peter Gould have made something far better than a cheap knock-off – in fact, some might argue that Saul is, in many ways, superior to the show that came before.

Aside from the traditional black-and-white Nebraska Cinnabon flash-forward to the dull existence led by the show’s protagonist, season three picks up precisely where season two left off: conman turned lawyer Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) has admitted to his mentally ill brother Chuck (Michael McKean) that he sabotaged some of Chuck’s legal paperwork in order to secure a client for himself and his nascent legal practice. Chuck, the golden child and the successful, law-abiding lawyer, reveals that he, too, knows how to run a long con. Having led Jimmy to believe that his own mental illness had truly gotten the best of him, Jimmy feels remorse – then Jimmy confesses. In the next scene, we see that Chuck is already taking down all of the space blankets taped along the walls to cocoon himself from his fear of electromagnetic waves (the primary symptom of his mental illness). Chuck wasn’t losing his mind after all, and he’d been secretly recording his conversation with Jimmy, capturing the entire confession. Chuck has already been established as an exceptional attorney; he knows his secretly taped audio confession likely won’t hold-up in court, but we all know he probably has something bigger planned.

And even though Better Call Saul is entirely its own show, fans have been excited to see the return of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the ice-cold drug lord who masks his criminal enterprise in a collection of fast-food franchises. The conclusion of season two planted the seeds, and various easter eggs (including a clever acrostic of episode titles), have confirmed Fring’s return (as well as later-released press photos).

It appears that audiences can look forward to seeing how Mike (Jonathan Banks) becomes one of Fring’s chief enforcers. As Mike gets ever-closer to discovering precisely who Fring is, Jonathan Banks continues to deliver a show-stealing performance. The Saul story-line dissolves when we cut to Mike, and audiences try to figure out what he’s thinking, what he’s planning.

As strong as Odenkirk, McKean, and Banks are in the show, the production’s secret weapon is Rhea Seehorn’s complex portrayal of Kim Wexler. She is the heart and soul of the Saul’s story, a character struggling to keep her head above water during the ensuing flood. She isn’t manipulative (as Jimmy and even his brother Chuck are), she isn’t greedy (as the various suits in her field of work appear to be), and she isn’t criminal (as virtually every other character in the show is). She maintains her affinity for moral uprightness, but cannot control her attraction to Jimmy’s crooked ways – that’s the primary struggle of her character. Kim portrays the most human struggle in the show, one that all audience members can relate to in one way or another. She doesn’t like it, but she continually gets wrapped-up in Jimmy’s schemes, and it is this writer’s opinion that the conclusion of Better Call Saul will include her death – that will be the final tragedy that divorces Jimmy McGill from any hope of moral redemption.

Vince Gilligan may be a one note pony – Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are identical, Faustian tails of relatively innocent men being drawn into a criminal enterprise that threatens to overwhelm them. Jimmy’s crimes are certainly more nuanced than Walter White’s, but that’s just a detail. It is to the show’s credit – to the writing and the acting – that we continue to root for Jimmy despite the wrongs he has done – such was not the case by the time we hit the third season of Breaking Bad. Jimmy can’t outrun his lies forever – we already know that – and it is certainly entertaining to watch his character evolve while the noose begins to tighten.

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There are a couple of easy-to-miss details that I would love some assistance with. As fans of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul already know, nothing in the frame is accidental. Color scheme, costuming, editing, frame-rate, perspective, and pacing are all meticulously constructed to create an intentional, dynamic universe for the characters to inhabit. So why is the miserable Cinnabon manager reading “The Moon’s A Balloon” while on break at the mall? There isn’t a chance in hell that this particular book wasn’t chosen specifically for this character.

“The Moon’s A Balloon” is one of the best-selling memoirs of all time, of a man that contemporary audiences would scarcely recall: David Niven. The book is an account of his life in Hollywood during the 1950’s and 1960’s, beginning with the early loss of his aristocratic father. Stories of service during the second world war follow, and then tales of partying with legends of the silver screen. It’s a gossipy tome, at times earnest and heart-felt, but mostly boastful, about life among the stars while living in Los Angeles.

Does this somehow reflect the dim life that the once wealthy and talented Saul Goodman has been reduced to. A memoir about a long-forgotten Tinseltown big-shot perhaps reminds our character of how grand he used to be? I’d be curious to hear your opinion.

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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 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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