A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I’ve never seen so many star wipes in a row…
“That guy has a lot of energy.” -Kim
Prequels are bound by the what, but not always by the when, why, and how. Certain events are inevitable, but the way they happen makes all the difference between the bad prequels and the good ones. Two and a half seasons in, Better Call Saul has already made its case as one of the greatest prequels ever — depending on how you define The Godfather Part II or Vince Gilligan’s beloved The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it might be the greatest — and a lot of that comes from how clever Gilligan, Peter Gould, and company have been in adding compelling, surprising context to developments we all know about already.
The show’s most important point of inevitability, given the name and how its protagonist started out, was Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman, and it generated theory after theory from all the Breaking Bad fans who had happily come to the new show. How would it happen? When? Why? Would it be when he put on Marco’s fateful pinky ring at the end of the first season? Would Chuck’s quest to drum his brother out of the legal profession lead to a name change as a compromise? Would this be the week? How about this one?
So leave it to Saul, of course, to introduce its title character in a manner no one could have possibly expected: as a moniker Jimmy improvises while filming a last-second ad for his new business producing local television commercials.
We’ve seen in the past that Jimmy likes the phrase “s’all good, man,” and also that he takes enormous pleasure in writing and producing his legal ads, so it all fits with what we know. But it’s a hilariously obscure and low-key way to introduce the name and the persona, especially with the way Rhea Seehorn plays Kim’s stunned reaction to this man her boyfriend has — temporarily, she thinks, even if we unfortunately know better — become.
“Off Brand” actually lays the groundwork for a lot of the transformation from Jimmy McGill — dutiful brother, happy eldercare lawyer, a man who tries to do things the right way as much as he can — into the more unapologetically slick and amoral criminal lawyer (in both senses of the word, per Jesse Pinkman) we first got to know so well. When Rebecca stops by Jimmy and Kim’s office to plead for Jimmy’s help with Chuck, Jimmy is cruel and cold in dismissing the idea that he owes his brother anything anymore. And where we’ve always seen Jimmy as someone who genuinely enjoys spending time with his elderly clients, the montage of him calling all of them to explain about his suspension suggests even his patience has limits, at least when so many of these conversations are packed into such a small window. The 12-month suspension from practicing law is a relatively short sentence, given his crimes, but it’s a long time — especially at the pace this franchise tends to move(*) — for him to think about exactly who and what he wants to be when his law career resumes. When he and Kim stand outside the office discussing whether to give Francesca her two weeks notice, Jimmy insists, “As far as I’m concerned, nothing’s changed.” But it has. He can’t be a lawyer for a year, and even if the commercial business turns into a thriving enough concern to cover his half of the rent and Francesca’s salary, it’s easy to see Jimmy in 12 months deciding that he’d like to be Saul Goodman as a lawyer, too, and maybe take some criminal cases instead of drinking tea with a lot of nice but long-winded old people.
(*) I do wonder if a time jump — or, at least, a time-compressing montage like the one from Breaking Bad‘s “Gliding Over All” — might be coming. A year in Jimmy’s life as a commercial producer at the series’ usual pace could occupy many seasons, and it doesn’t feel like there’s enough material there. The issue with racing ahead would be more on the Mike side of things, where a lot of Gilligan’s famed “in-between moments” should be taking place during Jimmy’s suspension. Then again, maybe Mike will be able to resist working for Gus for the next year or so?
Saul’s first appearance comes at the end of an episode where most of the characters are pondering what to do following recent setbacks. After the riveting courtroom theatrics of “Chicanery,”“Off Brand” is a more relaxed, piece-mover sort of episode that allows us to catch up with the whole ensemble, including its least-used member.
As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Michael Mando seems to remain in the regular cast mainly because Gilligan and Gould have big plans for Nacho that keep being moved a little down the road by developments elsewhere, which leads to him disappearing for long stretches of each season. After a brief cameo when Hector invaded Los Pollos Hermanos in “Sabrosito,” Nacho finally gets some extended time here, particularly as the centerpiece of the pre-credits sequence where he has to lay a beating on Krazy-8 on Hector’s orders, and later dozes off while working a sewing machine at his father’s upholstery business, not noticing until the needle pierces his hand. He is overextended and miserable with this life — and with this cruel and unreasonable old man as his boss — and things only get worse later when Victor pulls a gun on him while he tries to take more than Hector’s agreed-upon share of drugs from Gus’s supply. Nacho’s a tough guy — he reduces Krazy-8, who will be so terrifying to Walt and Jesse in a few years, into a quivering puddle even before he starts hurting him — but the look in his eyes as he walks out of Gus’s desert facility is that of a man who is in no way comfortable with having a gun pointed at him, particularly for carrying out the stupid, bullying whims of the boss he hates.
When Hector — right after insisting that the upholstery business will become his new front, whether Nacho wants it or not (and he of course does not want it) — nearly has an attack in the wake of news that Tuco got into a fight that will extend his prison sentence(*), he drops one of his pills on the floor, and Nacho makes sure to conceal it until Tio has left. Mike was right when he told Nacho that assassinating Tuco would only bring unwanted attention from the rest of the Salamanca clan — and, as we’ve seen, moving Tuco out of the way just meant Nacho would have to deal directly with Hector. But if Nacho knows someone — say, a veterinarian with a predilection for criminal activity — who can help him poison Hector in a way that makes it look like he just had a massive stroke? Well, who could possibly blame Ignacio Varga for that?
(*) An easy way to keep Tuco behind bars until right before he meets Heisenberg.