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.
It’s a good showcase for an underserved character, making Nacho feel vital to the plot again after his various absences, and right at a moment when a lot of the more famous players find themselves at crossroads. Gus, for instance, goes looking for a new front business of his own, exploring a laundry facility that we all know quite well as the location of the super lab from Breaking Bad seasons three and four — and is scouting it with no less than Lydia Rodarte-Quayle! We never saw the two interact on the parent series — Laura Fraser’s first appearance was in the season after “Face Off” — but we know that Lydia was a major player in the operation, and it’s nice to see that twitchy lady’s face again. (I will assume the prop department has loaded up on Stevia packets for the occasion.)
Mike, meanwhile, is trying to stay clean after his recent flirtations with Gus, attending Stacey’s grief support group and then reluctantly agreeing to help build a new playground at the church. When Stacey says Matt told her about the carport Mike built at the family home back in the day, Mike seems to have no memory of this. Does this mean Matt invented the story to make his father sound warmer and more impressive to Stacey? Or that Mike, who has seen and done a lot of terrible things as both cop and freelance criminal, has simply forgotten about something benign and peaceful he did decades ago that made a lasting impression on his beloved son?
We know that Mike is handy enough to become a full-time contractor if he wanted to. It would be a much less lucrative profession than the one he’s eventually going to take with Gus, but also a much safer one, and he’d probably enjoy it a lot more than riding herd over Victor, Tyrus, Walt, Jesse, and the many other people he’ll have to deal with in Gus’s world.
Similarly, Jimmy McGill loves making these ads. For that matter, he really liked being an eldercare attorney until recently. Either path would probably be an easy and secure one for him to travel, to stay with Kim, to avoid ever becoming Cinnabon Gene.
But we know that Mike’s not going to pour concrete forever, just as we know that Jimmy is going to stay Saul Goodman, but in a different role. Again, we know the the what, and even some of the why, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had with the how of it all.
Some other thoughts:
* Chuck is also at a crossroads. Howard pushes him to look forward, rather than continuing to dwell on his feud with his brother and his failure to get Jimmy disbarred. For the moment, he seems to be mostly focused on learning more about his condition, first holding onto a battery from the infamous tape recorder to remind himself of how real the pain feels, then venturing out to call Dr. Cruz at the hospital. Is he finally ready to face that this is a mental illness? Or will he attempt to convince her, too?
* Another week, another Leftovers director makes his Better Call Saul debut, this time with Keith Gordon (responsible for the other show’s “Don’t Be Ridiculous” this season) behind the camera. Like many of the show’s directors, Gordon goes to town on a sequence about Chuck responding to electricity, making every surface and every light reflection look more distorted than normal as Chuck wanders downtown Albuquerque and uses a payphone to call Dr. Cruz. I also really liked the way he shot the grief counseling scene, slowly taking the camera in a 360 arc around the entire group until we see that Mike has been sitting next to Stacey — and hearing her sad story — this entire time.
* Though you’ll occasionally hear Gilligan or Kelley Dixon or someone else on the official Saul podcast mention a date, the show itself tends to be vague about exactly when this is all set, other than six years before Breaking Bad, which itself took place in a nebulous two-year period somewhere in the late ’00s. But when Howard cracks open the bottle of Macallan 1966 and refers to it as 35 years old, that would seem to place current events in 2001, which in turn put the start of Breaking Bad around 2007 (the series itself debuted in January of 2008). Howard could, of course, be using a round-ish number for a bottle that’s 34 or 37 years old, so I wouldn’t go using permanent marker for the date on your Saul conspiracy board just yet.
* Laura Fraser, like several of the other Breaking Bad vets to pop up this season, doesn’t get her guest credit until the end of the episode.
* Nacho’s piece of the Salamanca operation is apparently far enough down on the organizational ladder that nobody bothered to tell him or his dealers about shrink-wrapping the money. All of his cash is still getting spooled up in rubber bands. Or perhaps Hector is just defying that request because he’s mad Gus did it first.
* Jimmy’s not frustrated with every phone call. It felt in character — and a good way to remind us of his skill with ad-making — for him to be impressed when one of his clients revealed that he had flown a B-29 bomber in the war.
* We don’t see either Cousin this week, but Leonel is the one who calls Nacho’s sidekick Arturo with the news about Tuco.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com