‘Better Call Saul’ Gives Jimmy A Close Encounter With An Old Friend

A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I really don’t want to talk about Cracker Barrel…

“Can I help you?” -Gus Fring

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I have serious reservations about Saul turning into blatant Breaking Bad fan service, yet “Witness” left me giddy with the sight of Giancarlo Esposito in that familiar uniform, or even the surprise appearance of Victor(*), whose most memorable BB moment was his death at the hands of Gus in “Box Cutter.”

(*) My notes from right after the SUV’s window rolled down are just Victor’s name in all-caps over and over again, occasionally peppered with exclamation points. And, again, this is Victor we’re talking about!

Much of this is a credit to the way Thomas Schnauz’s script and Vince Gilligan’s direction keep teasing and teasing Gus’s arrival. By this point, most of us knew who had planted the bug in Mike’s gas cap (though the show saved Esposito’s name for the end credits for the benefit of viewers who don’t pay attention to all the marketing and press coverage), and it was a matter of when, not if, Gus would appear. Just as we got last week with Mike and the gas cap, “Witness” devoted a long chunk of time to a dialogue-free sequence, with roughly 7 minutes passing from when Jimmy enters the restaurant until Gus says his first line (though we hear stray chatter from the other customers and employees). But where the business with the transmitter in “Mabel” was about showing us every detail of Mike’s plan, and reminding us of what a tenacious, meticulous guy he is, there was no real tradecraft to be revealed in the Pollos Hermanos sequence, other than the way that Gus must have moved the parcel from the backpack into his sweeper while his body blocked anyone from seeing. This is just the show deliciously letting the tension build of exactly how Gus will appear, and also whether there will be a rewriting of what we knew on Breaking Bad about Saul Goodman not knowing Gus at the time he hooked Walt up with him.

The whole scene is masterfully shot, starting with that big sweep around the restaurant, which both reacquaints us with the place and leaves us wondering if the camera might just whiz right past Gus himself. Then we’re watching Jimmy watching the man with the backpack, and everyone else, and it’s almost 5 minutes into the scene before Gus appears at the top of the frame, out of focus but unmistakably the Chicken Man, while Jimmy is oblivious, because of course he doesn’t know what we know. And when Gus finally speaks, it’s while we’re watching Jimmy dive through the trash can in the event the backpack guy dumped something there.

It’s delightfully executed: not quite the masterclass in making the audience hold its breath that Gus’s arrival at the super lab in the aforementioned “Box Cutter” was, simply because the stakes here are nowhere near as high, but a similar example of how Gilligan and company use their powers of manipulation for good and not evil. And it manages to create an encounter between this show’s title character and its huge new addition without violating what we’ve been told is the history between the two men, or forcing the show to retcon it so that Saul was lying to Walt at the time(*). Jimmy McGill can have met fried chicken franchise operator Gustavo Fring — can maybe even encounter him again in the future, if Saul wants to push its luck a bit — without having any idea that he’s one of the region’s biggest drug traffickers. He sees the polite and solicitous middle manager, not the cold and steely kingpin who reveals his true face only when no one is looking. (And in a neat inverse of his introductory shot: now Gus is in the foreground, while Jimmy’s car is barely in focus on the fringes, recognizable only because we know what that yellow lemon looks like.)

(*) Saul is a con man, but his “I know a guy who knows a guy… who knows another guy” bit is never presented as him lying to Walt, especially given his lack of direct involvement in the drug business before hooking up with Walt and Jesse. More to the point, later episodes present Saul as genuinely shocked and hurt to find out that Mike, whom he considers to merely be “my investigator,” has been working for Gus all along. If Saul knew Gus’s secret identity, surely he would know that Mike’s loyalties lay with Gus.

As beautiful as the reveal of Gus himself is, the earlier shot of Mike driving away from his surveillance of the restaurant, with the camera slowly pulling back to reveal the Los Pollos Hermanos sign for the first time, is at least as artful, if not more. Again, we have a pretty good idea who’s been bugging Mike, and the glimpse of the restaurant itself is a huge clue just in case, but for now we know more than Mike does, and the patient unveiling of the sign feels as if it was accompanied by an orchestral fanfare and the dropping of a curtain, as our suspicions are confirmed. They could have gotten to the sign, and Gus, much more quickly, but the occasion warrants a proper build-up, the presence of both the sign and man felt so much more exciting and cathartic as a result of how Schnauz and Gilligan made us wait for each.

(Victor’s intro wasn’t quite as grand, but still got a decent runway under it, and also benefited from the surprise of it. We knew Esposito had signed on; the media wasn’t racing to report on Jeremiah Bitsui’s contract status. But it does raise some interesting possibilities for the Victor/Mike relationship as we see it develop, since Victor will have been with Gus longer, even as Mike will become Victor’s boss.)

The Gus story also gives us something of a Mike/Jimmy role reversal, since Mike has to use Jimmy as his investigator rather than risk exposure inside the restaurant. It’s a fun tweak on their usual relationship, and a good excuse to put the show’s two leading men together for a few minutes, even as their story arcs are diverging more and more these days.

Jimmy’s half of the show, in fact, is where the bigger “Witness” events happen, relatively speaking. Yes, it’s huge to see Gus again, but that story is still in set-up mode, and the more relevant meeting of Mike and Gus hasn’t even happened yet. Whereas we may very well have just seen the incident that leads to Jimmy McGill changing his name to Saul Goodman.

As I suspected when Chuck smirked after Ernie listened to the recording, the plan here was to nail Jimmy for the cover-up, rather than for the original crime with Mesa Verde. Howard explained in “Mabel” that the tape was inadmissible in any kind of court or hearing, and wouldn’t even help them win Mesa Verde back, but Chuck created it solely as bait to get Jimmy to do something stupid. “Howard, I know my brother,” he boasts, and while he’s proven instantly wrong on the specific point he was making about Jimmy making his move at night, he is proven right overall beyond his wildest dreams when Jimmy doesn’t just storm into the house without permission, doesn’t just use force to vandalize both Chuck’s locked desk drawer and the cassette itself, but threatens to burn Chuck’s house to the ground, all while Howard and David the security guard (the eponymous witness) are listening from the next room.

This is a huge jackpot Jimmy has stepped into, against both Kim’s better judgment and his own. He knows this is a terrible idea — even if he couldn’t conceive of his straight-arrow brother running one con on top of another, given his disbelief and rage that Chuck ran the first one at all — and so he stays in the office, trying to remove the tape from his fancy new office logo (an abstract mash-up of Kim’s last initial and his) in the painstakingly slow way Chuck tried to teach him last week with the space blankets. He has tried to do everything in his life of late the right way, and even the Mesa Verde stunt was him doing a bad thing for what seemed like a good reason, since he felt Kim had been unfairly squeezed out of the account by her big ex-firm (and since he felt Chuck deserved some comeuppance for his recent behavior). But Chuck McGill does, indeed, know his brother, and knows that Jimmy can only hold in his worst impulses for so long — even if much of Chuck’s own recent behavior and refusal to believe in Jimmy’s goodness has led to their current circumstances — and soon enough, Jimmy is back to yanking the tape off the wall, leaving a blur in his perfect jagged line(*) as he rushes out to meet his doom, so wounded about what Chuck has done that he can’t think straight, and so indignant that he would not only threaten to burn down the house, but throw some especially dark shade at his brother about why Rebecca left him(**).

(*) Though, as Kim points out, the line was always “a little crooked,” which seems about right for her man.

(**) This is your periodic reminder that Bob Odenkirk has improbably morphed into a superb dramatic actor; Jimmy’s rage in the final scene was so palpable, I expected my TV to start shaking.

Chuck would seem to have Jimmy dead to rights here, having played this out so carefully that even Mike Ehrmantraut would be impressed. But we know from Breaking Bad that Jimmy is still practicing law six years later in Albuquerque, just under a different name, and his ads are so ubiquitous around town that there would be no way for him to be doing it without Chuck’s knowledge. So it would seem a deal will have to be cut down the road in which Chuck and Howard agree to let Jimmy off the hook in exchange for him abandoning the name that associates him with both his brother and HHM, avoiding prison time and the end of his legal career for him and public embarrassment for them.

But even though we know Jimmy/Saul will wiggle out of this somehow, a line has been crossed. There’s no going back from this, and the likable eldercare attorney we’ve come to know so well will soon be turning into the guy who will one day do business with Gus Fring that goes much deeper than the matter of a wristwatch in a garbage can.

Some other thoughts:

* Hard not to watch Jimmy’s eyes linger on all the details of Los Pollos Hermanos without thinking about how, eight years from now, he’ll be managing a chain restaurant very much like it.

* We’ll see if Jimmy and Kim’s office arrangement survives the stunt he pulled at Chuck’s house, but we know that Jimmy is bound to stick with new assistant Francesca, the former MVC worker who opts for a mid-life career change to legal secretary, since she is still working for him in his Saul Goodman incarnation on Breaking Bad. Jimmy’s insistence on hiring her, even on a temp basis, rather than wait to interview more qualified candidates, is another sign of his insistence on cutting corners, and on the strain that would have come into the business relationship he and Kim have even without the various crimes he commits with regards to the tape.

* The culvert where Mike witnesses the last dead drop pick-up looks so science fiction-y, I’m impressed nobody ever found an excuse to film it for Breaking Bad.

* Also, the shot of Mike getting out of his car in the desert, looking as if he has simply emerged from the heat blur, was stunning. Though Breaking Bad and this show both film a lot in the desert, there haven’t been a ton of overt winks to Lawrence of Arabia and other sand-filled classics; this was a nice one.

* I’d love to hear the exact direction Gilligan gave Patrick Fabian for the sequence where Howard is running through the backyards near Chuck’s house, even as he tries to look like he’s not running. So awkward. So funny.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com