A review of tonight's Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I'm jealous of your big bowl of balls…
“I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. McGill.” -Mrs. Strauss
Prequels can be like straightjackets, where the writers are so bound by pre-established facts about their characters that there's barely any room to move, or breathe. With Jimmy and Mike, though, we know a whole lot more about how their respective stories ended on Breaking Bad than how they started, which has given Better Call Saul a lot of lattitude in showing how each of them arrived in Albuquerque with the best of intentions before ultimately stumbling down paths that would intersect not only with each other, but eventually with Walter White.
This season has slowed that descent, in part because the Saul creative team clearly enjoys writing these versions of the characters, in part because many of them were on Breaking Bad and recall just how carefully that show walked Walt down a similar path. “Amarillo” is about as slow as things have gotten so far – so light on incident that it gets by almost entirely on the charms of Odenkirk, Banks, and Rhea Seehorn – while also pointing out that these two very different men have the same basic Achilles heel: a family member who keeps pushing them into bad behavior they've each tried to swear off.
Jimmy's Kryptonite is Chuck, and it's as maddening for me to watch as it must be for Jimmy to endure. He wants so hard to be good, to prove Kim right and to prove Chuck wrong, but like Chuck's mere smug presence at the office overrides all of Jimmy's emotional and moral controls, and pushes him into the exact kind of behavior that confirms every one of Chuck's Slippin' Jimmy suspicions. Last week, he followed a surprise Chuck conference room visit by spinning lies about Hoboken squat cobbler and fabricating evidence. When we find him here in the eponymous Texas city, he's not exactly playing by the rules, and lies about it when Chuck inquires at another inter-firm meeting. So his hands aren't exactly clean here. But when Chuck calls him out on the solicitation rules, Jimmy can't stop himself from continuing to freelance, not only producing the commercial without Clifford's permission, but letting it air up in Colorado Springs. He can't stop himself. He wants to prove himself, but after watching Davis and Main's remarkably dull previous commercial, he knows Clifford isn't likely to approve his more sensationalized approach, and opts to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Does he do this even without Chuck getting under his skin first? Maybe. But so far this season, Chuck has been presented as a trigger for Jimmy's worst impulses.
Meanwhile, Mike has a simple life he seems content with. He has few material needs. All he wants is to do right by Stacey and Kaylee, as both father-in-law and grandfather, and as a man drowning in guilt over his role in his son's death. Each time he's edged back into the criminal world, it's not been to obtain creature comforts for himself (all he needs is his old portable radio and a pimento sandwich), but out of guilt for not being able to do more for Kaylee. (It's a compulsion that will keep driving him for the entirety of his run on Breaking Bad.)
The episode leaves some ambiguity as to whether Stacey is passive-aggressively scamming Mike in hopes he'll help her move to a nicer place, or that she's simply hearing things that aren't there as part of her ongoing struggle to get over Matt's murder. But it doesn't matter. Mike is all-in with this situation, so her motives don't matter. He realizes the gunshots are fictional, but any regret from that discovery is only from his realization that he can't solve the problem by playing cop (and eliminating a genuine threat to the neighborhood), but by playing crook again to make the money that will get them off that street.
Again, it's a pretty thin episode (and one that noted Sandpiper hater Chris Ryan will probably have issues with), that's mainly setting things up for whatever's coming next week – Will Clifford fire Jimmy, or fall in love with his ad? Who does Nacho want Mike to make go away? – but it also takes advantage of how well we know these characters, and how thoroughly the two leads inhabit the roles at this point. And they take us one small step closer to some very bad decisions each of them will make when they're more like the men we first met.
And Mrs. Strauss' descent down the stairs was worth the price of admission.
Some other thoughts:
* This week, in Better Call Saul Loves Movies: every pop culture reference in the series will likely be forever playing for second place after the line I quoted at the top of this review, which was in reference to one of the most famous lines in movie history, from the end of Sunset Boulevard. Fienberg, after watching the episode, wondered if perhaps the Saul writers – who already knew of the character's fondness for film references on Breaking Bad – hadn't given him a name that rhymes with DeMille specifically so they could one day do this.
* That scene's a double reunion, not only bringing back Mrs. Strauss from season 1's “Alpine Shepherd Boy,” but the two student filmmakers Jimmy hired to shoot him when he was pulling the billboard scam in “Hero.”
* Ice Station Zebra, the movie Kim makes Jimmy watch, will have a big enough impact on it that he'll name one of his holding companies after it in the Saul Goodman years.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com