Review: ‘Better Call Saul’ episode opens with a shot to impress even ‘Breaking Bad’ fans

Senior Television Writer
04.04.16 137 Comments

A review of tonight's Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as you point me to your best copier…

“I need to find a way to do this that's right for me.” -Kim

During last night's Walking Dead finale, AMC ran ads for a lot of its current and upcoming shows, including a pair of Better Call Saul ads. One featured critical praise for Bob Odenkirk in particular. The other was heavy on Mike, the Salamancas, and overall Breaking Bad flavor. I can imagine the latter being more appealing to fans of a zombie action show, but Saul remains two shows in one at the moment, and the Jimmy/Kim/Chuck one was predominantly on display in “Fifi,” even if the episode opened with an eye-popping sequence that goes up there with some of the more impressive shots the parent show ever gave us, and one that was very intentionally evocative of the opening of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, which offers one of the more famous one-take sequences in movie history:

According to “Fifi” writer Thomas Schnauz, he and the rest of the creative team had Touch of Evil in mind as they set up their own border crossing, and the percussion is extremely reminiscent of the Touch of Evil score. But the idea to actually film it in one take – covering so much ground and moving around so many tight spaces – was all from director Larysa Kondracki. It did a neat job of not only paying homage to Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh making a similar crossing (with an explosion, to boot), but also establishing how thoroughly the border police seemed to do their job in searching the ice cream truck, even though they fail to find the contraband that's being brought to Hector Salamanca. In that way, it felt like a magician rolling up his sleeves or sliding a hula hoop across the levitating woman as a way to prove there's no trickery going on, even though we in the audience understand that there's much more going on than we can see from where we're looking.

In that way, the opening works not just as a way for Kondracki and Saul to show off, but a reminder of the show's meticulous nature and incremental pacing. Those were hallmarks of Breaking Bad, too, but that show tended to use them to build up to moments of extreme violence – sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes both. Saul isn't a show without physical violence – recently, we watched Tuco beat the snot out of Mike, and Mike in turn beat up a couple of Hector's goons – but its deepest wounds are on the emotional side of things. And a lot of “Fifi” was about incrementally pushing forward the story of Kim and Jimmy coming to work together (sort of) so we can eventually feel devastated when things go badly between them.

And they will go very badly. If there was any doubt of that before, the events of “Fifi” should probably put those to rest.

This is primarily a story of the two McGill brothers, though Kim gets a few moments to impress, first when she convinces Kevin from Mesa Verde to jump ship from HHM, then when Rhea Seehorn flashes that enormous smile (heartbreaking in retrospect) as Kim reveals that she won the meeting. But it's now active war between Jimmy and Chuck, even as Jimmy continues to nurse Chuck through his latest bout of psychosomatic pain. We know that Chuck has sandbagged Jimmy in the past, but this is the first time we've seen him actively do it in an attempt to hurt Jimmy(*), and in turn the first time we've seen our hero go full Slippin' Jimmy on his older brother.

(*) Note that Howard never corrects Chuck's assumption that Kim and Jimmy are going to be part of the same practice, just share an office and expenses. It might have turned out to be a distinction without a difference as far as Chuck was concerned, but I also wonder if Howard might have said the bare minimum he needed to get Chuck's full support (if not his physical participation) in the campaign to keep Mesa Verde.

What Jimmy does in transposing two digits of the address on every relevant document page is very clever, as it's the kind of thing that will look like an innocent mistake a low-level HHM staffer made that didn't get caught until it was too late – the sort of mistake that a single-client shop like Kim's might be less likely to make. But it's not something Kim asked, or would have wanted, Jimmy to do, and if he actually succeeds in getting her the business back, it's going to be tainted for her. That huge smile on her face in the dental office is there because she did this, on her own, the way she wanted to, which was playing it clean. She didn't even engage in the resignation letter shenanigans Jimmy suggested, which are in an ethical grey area but in no way illegal, and she still won out. Whenever Kim finds out about this – and you know she will at some point, even if it takes as long for her as it did for Jesse to find out about Jane – she'll be able to take no pleasure in having Mesa Verde as a client, and may well feel compelled to refuse their business. She wants to do it her way, and now Jimmy has put her in an unwitting position where she's doing things his way.

If that winds up being the big secret that hangs over a long stretch of the series, it would be yet another way that Saul differentiates itself from Breaking Bad – in tone if not in method. A few hours fooling around with an X-Acto knife, a glue stick, and some high-grade paper isn't a sin on the level of what Walt did with Jane, but we already know that this show's tragedy is going to be a smaller one than that show's. Becoming Cinnabon Gene is a lousy fate, but it's not as bad as what happened to Walt, Hank, Skyler, or, for that matter, Mike Ehrmantraut. But over the course of 18 episodes so far, Better Call Saul has demonstrated that it can still hit pretty hard emotionally despite the drastically reduced stakes, and also be a lot of fun in the process. That may not be enough for people who were much more excited about the second commercial than the first, but I'm damn pleased.

Some other thoughts:

* This was a great showcase episode for Michael McKean, as Chuck demonstrates that Jimmy isn't the only salesman in the family. The difference between the brothers is that Chuck is running a hustle that he wants his client to be aware of – the routine works because everyone in that conference room understands what Chuck is really saying, and in the most effective context – but there's still a lot of showmanship there from the guy who so often seems envious of Jimmy's gift of gab. Also, I liked the superhero-ish touch of Chuck throwing off the space blanket like it was a cape right before he went into the meeting.

* Always fun to watch Mike figure out how to MacGyver up a solution to a problem, in this case enlisting Kaylee's help to build a spike strip out of a garden hose, while convincing her and Stacey that he's making a soaker for his rhododendrons. Clearly, he has a car to stop – or perhaps an ice cream truck – but the full details of his plan have yet to reveal themselves.

* Ordinarily, the show wouldn't bother using as recognizable an actor as Brendan Fehr to play the Air Force officer giving Jimmy, Fudge, and the film students a tour of the B-29 Super Fortress (which they use as the backdrop to film an ad for Jimmy's practice), given that he's only in the one scene and it would be much cheaper to use a local actor than to fly one in. But the actor the show hired got violently ill on the day of the shoot. Fortunately, NBC's The Night Shift (aka the show with the greatest key art in TV history) also films in Albuqerque, which made Fehr not only a local actor for the show's purposes, but someone available to come in at the very last minute (after several wide shots were filmed with the other actor) and get the job done without further hassle. According to Schnauz, the switch happened so late in the process that the ill actor filmed some of the wide shots that made it into the final cut of the episode, and “(Fehr) saved our butts. I thought we were sunk. It would have been impossible to get the plane back.”

* I also am happy that the film students appeared in an episode with that opening shot. They'd appreciate the hell out of it, and probably have many questions about what kind of equipment was necessary to achieve both the early crane effect and then move so quickly and smoothly around the tight spaces of that border garage.

* The song playing while Jimmy is at the copy shop is “Why Don't You Do It” by Little Barrie, who also provides the Saul theme music.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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