A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I can work with the TV on…
“I’m gonna be a damn good lawyer, and people are gonna know about it.” -Jimmy
This week’s episode — “Quite a Ride” — is the first episode of Better Call Saul to genuinely feature the title character. Sure, we’ve seen Jimmy use the name Saul Goodman before while running cons or selling local ad time, but this is more than just the name: this is the guy we met on Breaking Bad, literally during the events of Breaking Bad. We are in Saul’s strip mall office, somewhere in between “Ozymandias” and “Granite State,” as Francesca is frantically shredding documents that are evidence of his criminal exploits, while Saul is packing up all the cash he has on hand before reaching out to Ed the disappearance expert. Saul’s face is still beat up from where Jesse hit him after figuring out what happened to Brock, and Francesca is very far removed from the sweet and optimistic lady whom Jimmy and Kim originally hired in their shared office. (Just as she did to Walt at the peak of his war with Gus, she is able to coolly extort money from a desperate Jimmy to do him a small favor.)
None of it is information we really need to appreciate Saul’s story on Breaking Bad, but it’s nonetheless startling and incredibly powerful to be hurled back into this era, and to be in the company of this man, after three and a half seasons of spending time with Jimmy McGill, with occasional glimpses of Gene Takovic. Even as someone who insists over and over that the strongest parts of this show are the ones that have little or nothing to do with Walter White, I got chills realizing where and when we were in that scene.
But why now? Why open this particular episode with a Breaking Bad flash-forward, after Gould and Gilligan have spent so long delaying so much as a glimpse of Saul Goodman’s early career as a criminal defense lawyer?
Maybe it’s because “Quite A Ride” offers the bookends to that career, in reverse. It opens with the end of the eponymous ride, and closes with Jimmy McGill plotting out the beginning of it, on the verge of being Saul in everything but name.
Now, we’ve all cried wolf before on this issue, in part because the show has done the same. (This was most notable in the transition between Season One, which seemed to end with him fully pivoting into Saul mode, and Season Two, which opened with the writers walking it back because they realized they enjoyed Jimmy too much to be done with him yet.) But you don’t need to have a flip phone broken over your head to see what’s happening throughout “Quite a Ride,” an episode that is laying down the foundation for all things Goodman in the same way that Mike and Gus are interviewing engineers who can help them excavate the space needed for the Superlab.
Jimmy’s plan to sell burner phones to criminals starts out as a way to alleviate the boredom of his new job, and to make some extra cash off the books. But it soon becomes clear how desperately he craves the street life — as beautifully and aptly described in the song of the same name by Randy Crawford, which plays over a montage of a tracksuited Jimmy moving merch at Jesse Pinkman’s old hangout, the Dog House. It doesn’t help that Kim‘s new sideline as a criminal defense lawyer, on top of her regular work for Mesa Verde, gives her precious little time to spend with him — even when they’re physically in the same room of the apartment, every shot is framed to make Jimmy look utterly alone — but this itch he needs to scratch goes much deeper than his girlfriend’s own mid-life crisis. After he gets mugged by the kids from the laundromat (recalling the bruises on Saul Goodman in the teaser), he laments, “What the hell is the matter with me?”(*) These words could signal a man who has been scared straight from a life he has been lucky and talented enough to escape from, but it’s not. It is Slippin’ Jimmy offended that his con man edges have grown dull enough for punks like those to think they could rob him in the first place. It’s a criminal recognizing that he never really wants to be anything else.
(*) In an episode overflowing with nods at the parent show (see also the bouncing car outside the Dog House with hydraulics), the phrasing here echoes the most important line of “Ozymandias,” when Walt asks Skyler and Walter Jr, “What the hell is wrong with you? We’re a family!”
Kim’s tender manner with him as she cleans his wounds does briefly seem to break that spell, and Jimmy even ends the scene by suggesting that he’ll call the shrink she wanted him to see. But that moment of enlightenment lasts only long enough for him to run into a ruined Howard Hamlin at the courthouse. When he sees how little a top-tier, expensive therapist has been able to do for his wealthy ex-boss, he abandons the therapy plan, and tears up the paper with the phone number on it like it’s another burner phone he needs to get rid of before he gets caught and has to actually talk to someone about his problems. Instead, it’s his PPD supervisor who inadvertently plays psychoanalyst for him, as his routine questions about Jimmy’s future plans force our man to articulate the path we’ve always unfortunately known that he’ll go down. He’ll be a lawyer — and his desire to keep working with Kim, on top of his own criminal contacts and impulses, will make the choice of specialty for him — and he’ll be a well-known lawyer, at that. Maybe even, though he doesn’t say it, the kind whose face is on bus benches (the sort featured in this week’s opening credits) all over town?
It’s possible this could be yet another false start on the road to Saul, but I just don’t see it. Between the teaser, the scenes at the laundromat that will be home to the Superlab, and all the other Easter Eggs (Walt liked to snap flip phones in half, too), the entire episode is a blinking neon arrow pointing to Saul Goodman’s impending, tragic arrival. In the muddled early days of this series, nothing would have made me happier. Now? Well, I know it has to happen, and I’m sure this creative team will chronicle the rest of the journey with as much care and power as they have to date. But as we are perilously close to losing the Jimmy McGill we’ve come to love, it hurts, in a way I couldn’t possibly have imagined when Better Call Saul began.
Some other thoughts:
- To which lawyer does Saul send Francesca? On first view, it sounded like Saul says, “Tell him Jimmy sent you,” which would rule out Kim (and perhaps point to Howard, or someone we have yet to meet). But the line in the script is the more ambiguous, “Tell ’em Jimmy sent you,” which still puts her in play. And speaking of which…
- Our glimpses of Kim in defense attorney mode not only bring back Jimmy’s old prosecutor pal Bill, but show her to be a very different kind of lawyer from Saul Goodman. She’s a zealous advocate for her clients (it was hilarious watching her destroy Bill in negotiating a plea deal), but her primary concern is putting them on the straight and narrow so they won’t need her services in the future. Even if she and Jimmy/Saul begin practicing together, I can’t see their partnership lasting very long once she sees how he operates in this field.
- When Gale popped up in “Something Beautiful,” I lamented that the story was too far away from the opening of the Superlab for him to have much of a role here. We’re still years away from it being finished and operational (the flashback at the start of Breaking Bad‘s “Box Cutter” shows Gale still unpacking the place after Walter White has already gone into the meth business), but at least construction is about to begin. Nice to see Mike and Gus being as thorough as always, by having their European engineers fly into Denver and travel hooded to Albuquerque so they won’t even know where this lab is unless they’re the chosen one. That they choose the engineer who makes the job sound almost, but not quite, impossible over the one who makes it sound much too easy, also speaks to how careful and risk-averse they are. Werner Ziegler may take a long time to get the job done — enough time to bridge the long gap between where Saul is now and where Breaking Bad begins — but he seems a much safer bet to actually do it, given all the restrictions Gus is placing on him.
- While thumbing through the last few recaps in Breaking Bad 101 to situate that cold open, I realized something that had somehow never occurred to me before, despite watching the episode a half dozen times over the years: Saul doesn’t appear at all in “Ozymandias,” that show’s greatest hour by far. That’s not a cause-and-effect thing, and he didn’t really have a role in an installment that’s so focused on the destruction of Walt’s family, but it’s still interesting.
- Though Nacho’s not in this episode, it feels like Michael Mando and Patrick Fabian have traded places in the supporting cast from Season One. Back then, Nacho was the guy who barely appeared because the writers weren’t ready yet to dive deep into the drug world, while Howard was a fixture of Jimmy and Kim’s world. Now, Nacho’s becoming ever more important, while it feels like the narrative has mostly left poor Howard behind. That said, boy was Fabian good in that courthouse bathroom scene. He didn’t say a word to Jimmy about what was causing his crippling insomnia, but his face told us how much of it had to do with their conversation at the end of the season premiere, as well as the devastating lecture Kim laid on him in the next episode.
- The “Street Life” montage was a thing of beauty from director Michael Morris and editor Skip Macdonald, maybe the best Saul sequence of its type since Kim making phone calls in the stairwell. Morris also worked in a variety of familiar BB-style POV shots, like Saul reaching into his secret wall safe, or Kim getting ice out of the freezer to put on Jimmy’s ribs. What feels relatively new to the franchise over the last few episodes is the way sequences feature frequent cuts to depict the passage of time during tedious tasks, like Jimmy working at CC Mobile, or Mike and his hooded passenger making the long drive to Albuquerque in the back of a truck. (At the store, we only know time has passed because the Muzak keeps changing; in the truck or as the man in the hood walks through the laundromat, the visuals shift slightly with each jump forward.) It’s an effective change of pace device, and a different way to depict the slow passage of time that’s such a hallmark of both series.
- Jimmy still keeps things at the nail salon back office, including the track suit he changes into after the laundromat kids make him for a narc. Will he wind up living there again if things go south with Kim?
What did everybody else think?
Previously: Talking Points