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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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

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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 2.01 – 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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