A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as my job rhymes with “mug mealer”…
“You believe me, right?” -Jimmy
I interviewed Peter Gould and Michael McKean this afternoon about all things Saul — look for most of that next Monday morning, but here’s an excerpt where Gould talks about why the show hasn’t been renewed yet and how long he sees it going — and at one point I asked Gould about the odd structure of season three. In another season of Saul, or Breaking Bad, or a lot of modern serialized dramas, “Chicanery” would have been the season finale; it’s the climax of Chuck’s attempt to drum Jimmy out of the legal profession, and it sets both brothers up on entirely new arcs that the episodes since then have been dealing with, at a pace that the show more generally uses at the starts of seasons rather than at this late point.
Gould noted that he and Vince Gilligan have never been great at planning (most of the best-received stories on Breaking Bad were conceived of after the writing staff had painted itself into a corner), and that rather than focusing on season structure, they try to follow what the characters would do, and when they would do it. There was only so long they could put off the bar hearing, and that in turn has meant a pivot into each McGill dealing with the ramifications of it, even if it feels like the season is starting over again with only a few episodes remaining, with most of the characters — even on the drug side of the equation — still finding their way. You wouldn’t expect an hour this late in the year to have as its showpiece scene a guy trying to throw a pill bottle into an open blazer pocket, right?
But in focusing first on what the characters would be doing rather than worrying about building to an explosive finale (which we could still get), Gould, Gilligan, and company (“Slip” was written by Heather Marion and directed by Adam Bernstein) also get to make these in-between moments feel so rich and lived-in and authentic that I’m only surprised by the structure, rather than being disappointed by it. It’s not where I expected the story to be at this point, but it’s so satisfying dramatically that I don’t much care.
Even more surprising is the way the two brothers’ stories have diverged in the weeks since “Chicanery.” In that hearing, Jimmy won utterly, and Chuck lost utterly — not only failing to get his brother disbarred, but being exposed publicly as being mentally ill and in denial about it — yet you wouldn’t think that to look at them through the course of “Slip.” Though he hated it at the time, Chuck has now been forced to accept the true nature of his condition, which means he can finally get proper treatment for it, rather than the humbuggery of camp stoves and space blankets. It’s unclear what kind of medication Dr. Cruz has put him on (anti-anxiety, I would guess), but the exercises she’s given him to use when he’s out in public around electricity evoke the old saw about the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have it. The condition still feels real to Chuck, but he’s able to push against it, to buy groceries and walk happily out in the sunlight, and to talk with Dr. Cruz about his hopes for the future. Chuck will always be thought of by the audience (myself included a lot of the time) as an insufferable and manipulative snob, but there’s a vulnerability and openness to him here, wonderfully played by McKean, suggesting a version of him who might be easier to be around. He’ll never be loved, but he felt just human enough for the moment where Howard arrives to tell him about his malpractice insurance — and something in Howard’s manner suggests the problem is much more severe than just a premium hike — and perhaps bring all Chuck’s new dreams crashing down on him.
The episode opens to Jimmy’s days running cons with Marco in Illinois, with the two of them searching for hidden treasure in the ruins of the McGill family grocery store. It’s yet another opportunity for Jimmy to air his version of the family history — to Chuck, their dad was a saint destroyed by his younger son’s thievery; to Jimmy, his dad was a sap destroyed by his insistence on playing by rules no one else really follows — in a way that nicely sets up the moral descent he takes in the episode’s later scenes.
Both Jimmy the eldercare lawyer and Saul Goodman the commercial producer are fast talkers with a gift for pushing people into doing things they don’t initially want, but he’s not an outright grifter in either incarnation. He believes his services can genuinely help his clients, and is even proven right here when ABQ In Tune sees a surge in business following the airing of the pro bono commercial he made in last week’s episode. But just as he feels his father always got screwed over for trying to do the right thing, he’s dismayed to find the brothers trying to renege on their handshake deal because one has realized how much money they can save by cutting out the middleman and an ad and buying time for it on their own. They’re not necessarily wrong that Jimmy, desperate to escape his contract with the station, is overcharging them for a service they don’t entirely need (one ad would do them just fine for quite a while), but they also had an agreement, and Jimmy honored his end while they are weaseling out of theirs. Jimmy has tried so hard for so long to do the right thing to impress his brother, to impress Kim, and also because there’s arguably more good in him than bad, but is it any wonder that he would go full Slippin’ Jimmy on the twins to ensure he gets his money no matter what(*)? And, once that succeeded, is it all that shocking that he would try to further combine his legal and con man skills in order to get himself and one of his fellow community service workers out of having to pick up trash?
(*) A good slip-n-fall man, like a good pro wrestler, doesn’t escape his stunts unscathed. They’re scripted, but the injuries are still real.
He’s still not full Saul yet, but you can also see him stepping — or slipping — more and more into those shoes with each passing episode. Yet he’s still his father’s son, and his insistence on contributing to his half of the office expenses is starting to drive a wedge between himself and Kim. Their conversation while he’s playing the Ritchie Blackmore guitar is among the least warm exchanges they’ve had, and she follows it by going back on her plan — and her word to Kevin about keeping Mesa Verde as her only client (even if Kevin himself suggests he would be okay with this exception) — to farm the Gatwood business out to another lawyer. Is she doing this because she’s worried Jimmy won’t actually be able to hold up his end, and it would be better to have the extra income? Is she throwing herself into work as a distraction from a relationship that’s starting to slip, as well as memories of the awful thing she and Jimmy did to Chuck? Either way, it’s one more thing to keep them apart at a time when Jimmy McGill could really use frequent reminding of his own humanity.
It’s easy to see parallels, meanwhile, between Mr. McGill and Mr. Varga, even though Nacho has far more respect for his father than Jimmy did for his. Nacho is putting himself at grave risk trying to kill Don Hector, but it’s the only way to save, at minimum, his father’s business, and probably his father’s life, so risk he shall. The business with the pills is a pretty classic BB/Saul piece of sweating the details — literally, once Nacho busts the air conditioner to ensure that Hector won’t be wearing his jacket when it’s time to swap out the medicine — and showing just how hard it is even for an experienced criminal to pull off a specialized trick like this(*). And by showing us just how difficult it was for Nacho to do the swap once, we’re primed to feel tense for the moment when the plan succeeds and he has to swap the pills back again before the police or someone else in the cartel can check them to see why they didn’t work.
(*) If only Nacho were acquainted with Huell…
It’s also not hard to find parallels between Mr. McGill and Mr. Ehrmantraut. Mike has never been a saint, but we’ve also seen him trying to do things the right way, even as he keeps being tempted by the money he can make for Kaylee by working on the other side of the fence. Working for Daniel Wormald led him to Nacho, which put Tuco and Hector and the Cousins into his life, which led to a truck heist that left the good Samaritan dead and Mike with $200,000 in cash he can’t give to his granddaughter. “Slip” sees him belatedly dealing with both problems, first by identifying the Samaritan’s body in the desert near where he robbed the truck and alerting local authorities to provide closure for the man’s loved ones, then going to Gus Fring for help laundering the cash. He presents it as a one-time transaction and offers Gus a hefty percentage for his trouble, but Gus doesn’t want Mike’s money: he wants Mike Ehrmantraut himself. Their handshake signals the start of an alliance that will last years, create fortunes, ruin lives, and end with the men on either side of it dead at the hands of Walter White.
Slippin’ Jimmy was never big on violent crime and the risks that come with it, and he would not approve of the nasty ends that both Mike and Gus will come to a few years from now. But he also wouldn’t begrudge a man from trying to make as much as he can, while he can, given the way the system seems built to screw over the little guy who — like both Papa McGill and the good Samaritan — does things the right way.
Some other thoughts:
* One other tease of the Gould/McKean interview: both men are very aware of how much the fans hate Chuck, and much less surprised than Gould was with Skyler on Breaking Bad.
* Always good to have Adam Bernstein behind the camera for an episode. This week’s most notable shot was probably the time-lapse photography that had multiple Mikes combing the desert all at once with the metal detector and shovel.
* The show has featured a lot of notable work from the stunt team this season, and tonight we got two memorable pieces of physicality: Jimmy making himself trip on the drunkstick at ABQ In Tune, and Nacho leaping off the dumpster to get to the rooftop air conditioner.
* The show continues to be smart in giving Kim her own internal and external conflicts above and beyond her relationship with Jimmy. On top of the usual Mesa Verde stuff, here we also see her in conflict with ex-mentor Howard over her role in destroying Chuck’s reputation (and perhaps ability to practice law), and her in turn calling him out for lying to the world about Chuck’s condition because it was more convenient to do so.
* Mel Rodriguez returns as Marco in the teaser, and Jimmy pays homage to his dead friend by playing “Smoke on the Water” on his new guitar. (Related: McKean — who, as anyone who’s seen Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind knows, is a good guitar player — is annoyed that the show keeps letting other actors play guitar, while Chuck does piano, which is an instrument he doesn’t know well.)
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org