A review of tonight's “Better Call Saul!” coming up just as soon as I take off the space blanket…
“Wow, you got a mouth on you.” -Tuco
Our second “Better Call Saul” installment is really two episodes in one: a long resolution of the Tuco fiasco, followed by Jimmy trying to get his act together to avoid ever being in a situation like that again.
The former suggests a “Breaking Bad” rehash filtered through the personality of the new main character, while, the latter suggests… something else. And given that the episode ends with Jimmy being approached by Tuco's pal Nacho, it's not clear yet which version of the show will be triumphant.
What is clear even at this early stage, though, is how entertaining it is to watch Jimmy try to talk himself out of trouble again and again.
So, yes, the trip to the desert is a vintage Walter White scene, with a Walter White villain – in a nice touch, he's also referred to by a different (nick)name, the Spanish term of affection Mijo, just like Saul/Jimmy – but there is a Jimmy McGill resolution to it. He doesn't have the scientific acumen, doesn't have the force of will, nor the surprising physical strength of which our last ABQ leading man was capable. What he has, as Tuco notes, is a mouth that is locked, loaded and ready to spray out a full clip of bullshit at a moment's notice. As he bakes under the New Mexico sun, worrying at various points about his own life and the survival of the twins, he's called upon to give the greatest performance of his life to date, relying not only on his gift for gab, but this ability to take any audience member, even one as stupid as Tuco(**), where he wants them to go. Same setting, same villain, completely different show. It's a treat.
(*) Tuco's cousins weren't identical twins like these clowns, but with a Salamanca family member present, it's hard not to think of the skaters as the pathetic “Saul” comic relief counterparts of Leonel and Marco.
(**) Tuco's “Breaking Bad” appearances suggested that using his own product had fried his brain, but this is a younger and less altered Tuco, yet he's still a violent moron.
Jimmy escapes the desert with his skin intact, and with the twins' punishment for disrespecting Tuco's grandma reduced from death to six months of rehab – Jimmy isn't blowing smoke when he tells them, “I'm the best lawyer ever” – but you can tell just how badly this experience has spooked him, whether he's puking in the middle of a date or coming to Chuck's house drunk and forgetting to go through all the proper grounding procedures.
It's such a complicated dynamic between the brothers, as often happens with siblings. Chuck is older, wiser and more accomplished; he's also quite possibly mentally ill, and you can tell how much seeing his brother in this state weighs on Jimmy. Jimmy is younger, more reckless and prone to trouble, but he's the caretaker now, trying to get Chuck to acknowledge that the space blanket isn't actually doing anything for him (it's second cousin once removed to a tinfoil hat), and we see that both brothers are ultimately lying to each other, and to themselves. Chuck takes off the space blanket, but only until Jimmy is out of the house, while Jimmy won't tell Chuck about the ordeal he endured that day.
Still, the encounter with Tuco followed by another depressing visit to Chuck at least temporarily scares him straight, setting up a long montage of Jimmy giving a good faith effort as a defense lawyer. He never again wants to be in a position to be out in the desert with someone like Tuco, and he doesn't want to let down his brother, and as the sequence goes along, you can see that he has both a gift for this work and the kind of dogged work ethic Chuck has been telling him about. Peter Gould, Michelle MacLaren and editor Kelley Dixon do a nice job of weaving all these brief interactions into one seamless thing, so eventually Saul's individual arguments on behalf of his sleazeball clients turns into a single long, empty monologue.
That a large chunk of the episode's second half is devoted to this is the kind of set-up a show with this much initial goodwill can get away with. A brand-new series arguably needs more pure story upfront to keep the audience engaged, but I doubt there are many people watching “Saul” who didn't first watch “Breaking Bad,” and as a result, the creative team can afford to do basic foundation-laying like this. It's important for us to see our hero trying to stay on the straight and narrow before he goes back to Slippin' Jimmy again, which could be happening as early as next week, given the way that “Mijo” ends.
The desert scene affords us a brief introduction to Tuco's buddy Nacho, played by Michael Mando from “Orphan Black.” Tuco is our way back into the world of drugs in Albuquerque, but he's not a viable long-term character on this show because he's much too volatile, on top of it feeling like too much of a Walter White crutch this early. (I'm assuming we'll get some extended Gus Fring time later in the series, but by then the show will have had plenty of time to establish itself as its own thing.) Nacho seems much smarter and more cautious, and because he has no history with Walt and Jesse, this show can do anything with him that it wants. And the first thing he's doing is providing links to an actual ongoing storyline, since he wants to rob the corrupt county official whom Saul was trying to represent in last night's episode.
Two hours into this new adventure, I still don't have a strong sense of what “Saul” is going to feel like week to week, or over the course of a full season, but I am very much entertained by what's happening.
Some other thoughts:
* I don't know how often Michelle MacLaren will be available to direct future episodes of this show, what with her doing “Wonder Woman” and all, but it was a pleasure to have her back in this visual universe, here giving us both Sideways Cam as Jimmy is taken out to the desert and Wheelchair Cam as the twins are rushed into the emergency room.
* Hey, it's Jamie Luner (of “Just the Ten of Us,” “Melrose Place” and “Savannah,” among many, many series roles) as Jimmy's date. I assume production wouldn't have bothered hiring an out-of-town actress for a silent part, so either the original version of that scene had dialogue before they decided it worked better with Jimmy experiencing some PTSD from the desert trip, or we'll be seeing her again later in the season.
* The show continues to parcel out Mike very carefully, which will no doubt make the eventual partnership with Jimmy feel more satisfying. In the meantime, though, Jimmy's rant comparing Mike to a troll under a bridge was very funny.
* Walt first calls himself Heisenberg when dealing with Tuco, and the alias would live well beyond their brief association. I'm wondering if “Special Agent Jeffrey Steele” will be a frequent moniker of Jimmy's, or just a one-off joke.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com