Review: ‘Better Call Saul’ – ‘RICO’: A night at the opera

03.23.15 3 years ago 169 Comments

A review of tonight's “Better Call Saul” coming up just as soon as I use double ply…

There is a truth inherent to the prequel business: you can't change or prevent what your audience knows is coming for these characters. Sometimes, prequels use this to their advantage, whether great ones (where the young Vito scenes in “Godfather Part II” only enhance our feelings for the Brando version of the character), or less-great ones (where whatever emotional power the “Star Wars” prequels have comes from the knowledge of what's going to become of Anakin). Sometimes, though, having to stick to pre-established facts about your characters' future can be a drag, as we're seeing a lot this season on “Gotham.”(*)

(*) Another good example of prequelitis: “Comanche Moon,” the last “Lonesome Dove” novel to be published, but set before the events of the first, has our heroes chasing after a bad guy the reader knows they can never catch, because they have their first face-to-face meeting in the original “Lonesome Dove.” As a result, “Comanche Moon” just rambles, finding excuses for the two sides to not cross paths, then abruptly stops.

On the one hand, “Better Call Saul” would seem to be hamstrung by what we know is coming for Jimmy and Mike. Every time Jimmy seems close to some huge financial score, for instance, we know it probably has to fall apart somehow, because a Jimmy McGill who is a successful civil attorney has no need to become Saul Goodman. So when Chuck made the $20 million demand of the Sandpiper attorneys, my mind immediately began wondering how they would blow the case, and/or how they might win without any significant money going to Jimmy(**).

(**) My guess right now? Using Chuck's copier code will in some way allow Howard to weasel HHM into getting most or all of Jimmy's cut of the class action.

But the more I've watched this season, the more I've come to view that predestined quality as a feature, not a bug. We know where Jimmy and Mike will be six years into their future. The “what” isn't the important part of “Better Call Saul.” The “why” is.

In Mike's case, the “why” isn't all that surprising: he's doing it all for Kaylee. This we knew from “Breaking Bad,” and it was his determination to provide for her no matter what that caused him so much trouble on that show. But in telling us how Kaylee's father died, and showing how much Mike blames himself for that death, it gives so much more weight to his need to give the girl a better life. He's not just your run-of-the-mill grandfather trying to give his sweet granddaughter a college fund; he's a killer who feels responsible for the girl losing the father who should have been caring and providing for her. That's powerful stuff, and it casts even more darkness over his decision to revisit the shady veterinarian in search of criminal work. Plus the vet's question about what Mike will and won't do – and Mike's answer – suggests a pretty rich vein to mine about Mike's slow transformation from cop (albeit one who executed two dirty cops who had murdered his son) to the man we would know on “Breaking Bad.”

Jimmy, though, is more complicated and surprising. The more we've seen of his past and present this season, the more it becomes clear that he really did have a come to Jesus moment when Chuck got him out of his last bit of trouble in Cicero. He's had his periodic Slippin' Jimmy moments, but he wants to be a good guy, and wants to play by the rules. Look at him in the flashback that opens the episode: he's the low man on the totem pole at HHM, but he doesn't seem bitter, is clearly well liked by those around him, and he plugs away secretly for years to get his law degree(***) and pass the bar, all to impress his big brother.

(***) In “Breaking Bad,” Saul's degree from the University of American Samoa was treated as a joke, even to a degree by Saul himself; here, Jimmy proudly insists on telling Chuck that they're accredited, and that he wanted to find a place where he could take classes without interfering with his HHM work. 

Jimmy's problem, in past and present, is that he keeps trying to join a club that has no interest in having him as a member. Howard Hamlin shoots down his attempt to become an HHM associate. The Kettlemans are only willing to hire him as their lawyer when they have no other choice. The retirement home's lawyer has to struggle to contain his laughter as they talk on the phone.

Nearly everyone in the traditional legal community views Jimmy as trash – without even knowing that he literally climbed into a dumpster in this episode – unworthy of their time and respect. And Jimmy certainly does himself no favors at times, like writing the demand letter on cardboard and toilet paper, when whatever advantage he gained in terms of time would be negated by how it would make the other side view it, and him. 

It's clear by now that this is not a long con Jimmy is running, but a sincere effort to do right and impress his brother. But throughout this season, we've seen that the world has no interest in a good guy version of Jimmy McGill. So far, it's cost him money and a fancy office (and potential partner in Kim), it's put his life at risk from Nacho, it's gotten him laughed out by the Howards and Ricks of the legal community, and it's gotten him covered in filth. I doubt that the next two episodes are the turning point where Jimmy gives up his dreams of respectability and goes full Saul Goodman, but it's also not hard to see how he's going to get from here to there. If the world doesn't want him to be good, then eventually he'll have no choice but to break bad, right?

In the meantime, though, his good work has had a major impact on Chuck, who eventually gets so caught up in acting like a lawyer again that he briefly forgets about his bogus symptoms altogether, only having the Wile E. Coyote realization moment when Jimmy points out that he's outside (and using his car remote) without any issue at all.

I don't expect a magical cure, though it's interesting that we only see Chuck dropping the box, rather than himself, to the ground upon noticing where he is and what he's doing. But if Chuck were to get much better in a hurry, it would only complicate Jimmy's quest for respectability, and his inevitable descent into sleaze. On the one hand, he could have a powerful ally in a healthy and active Chuck. On the other, Jimmy's role as Chuck's protector is one of the few things that forces men like Howard and Rick to give him the time of day at all. Take that away, and is he even more of a joke to them, or less because Chuck now has his back?

I don't know that we'll be getting an answer just yet, but I keep thinking about what Peter Gould told me about how the last two episodes take the show in a tonal direction that surprised even him and Vince Gilligan. Will that involve the return of Nacho and maybe some “Breaking Bad”-style violence? Will Chuck get back in the saddle and pull Jimmy into the world of big law, Albuquerque-style? Beats me, but I can't wait to see whatever it is.

Some other thoughts:

* Having to watch “Walking Dead” live the last couple of weeks has exposed me to AMC's commercials for “Better Call Saul” I've already watched and it is a very amusing experience. The promos for “RICO,” for instance, tried to pitch the whole thing as dark and intense on a “Breaking Bad” level (or, at least, a “Five-O” level), presenting perfectly innocuous quotes out of context to make the whole thing seem much more ominous. They're far from the first network to goof around with promos – the later “Sopranos” promos were also works of misleading art – but the ads at least suggest that AMC is hoping to bring as many Walter White fans around as possible.

* Several of you have noted that Kaylee doesn't seem to have aged between how she looks on this show and how she appears on “Breaking Bad,” even though “Saul” takes place six years before the start of Walt's story, and seven years before we last see Kaylee. Here are the two actresses side-by-side, and while I don't know that the one on the right looks 6-7 years older than the one on the left, there is a clear gap.

Then again, considering that Bob Odenkirk doesn't look appreciably younger in any of the flashbacks – whether ones taking place relatively close to the events of this series or waaaay back in his Cicero con man days – maybe it's best not to question anyone's age on this show. 

* Jimmy's not the only HHM mailroomer to have passed the bar, it seems, but Kim got accepted and then eventually placed on a partnership track where Jimmy was denied those things.

* Our main title sequence this week involves a collection of Saul Goodman neckties in the desert, with a spider – maybe one of Drew Sharp's? – walking around and over them.

* Couple of recognizable guest stars this week in Jillian Armenante (who has experience in a legal setting as Amy Brenneman's law clerk on “Judging Amy”) and Dennis Boutsikaris as smug Sandpiper lawyer Rick Schweikart.

* This is our second episode of the season directed by Colin Bucksey (who was behind the camera for “Hero”), and our second written by Vince Gilligan's former assistant Gordon Smith, whose first produced TV script ever was “Five-O” – a job done so well that Gilligan turned him around for another one just two episodes later.

* Note the size of Mike's cell phone. Even for 2002 (roughly when “Saul” is meant to take place), that sucker was big.

* UPDATE: The song playing over the montage of Jimmy trying to piece the shredded documents back together is “The Truth” by Handsome Boy Modeling School “Coffee Cold” by Galt McDermott, which Shazam misidentified for me because Handsome Boy Modeling School samples the song.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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