Move over, Sesame Street: Better Call Saul just taught us more about the power of shapes than Elmo ever could. Scan tonight’s episode with your DVR’s fast-forward feature and just check out the geometric variety on display. Look at Jimmy and Mike in the police precinct, dwarfed by a massive block of square most-wanted mugshots. Check out the big rectangular picture windows of Jimmy’s expensive new office, quite literally granting him a new view of the world. Watch Kim desperately try to talk her clients Craig and Betsy Kettleman into taking a deal amid the disorienting triangles and trapezoids of her over-designed high-class conference room. And bear witness as otherwise innocuous structures become prison cell bars, trapping their inhabitants in their own failure. Even if you muted your TV and watched tonight’s episode “Bingo” without the sound on, you’d still come away with a clear message: “Jesus, this show is beautifully made.”
But TV cannot live on meticulous mise en scène alone — you’ve got to tell a story, and that’s where Saul falters this week. Take Mike’s plotline, which starts the proceedings with the same somber tone as last week’s fantastic spotlight episode. In theory, he’s doing the kind of stuff that made us like him in the first place: stoically sharing war stories and executing a perfectly planned home invasion over a funky instrumental soundtrack. But what, exactly, made Jimmy think his tollbooth worker/ex-cop/murder-suspect client was also a top-notch B&E guy? (Did a transitional scene get left on the cutting room floor?) Breaking Bad showed our man Ehrmantraut sneaking, skulking, and shooting his way into any number of places — but McGill hasn’t seen Breaking Bad. The question of how his lawyer came to know enough to hire him to steal back the Kettlemans’ stolen $1.6 million is even more intriguing. Whatever that conversation was like, it would have been nice to see it.
The opposite is true of the rich couple themselves — the less we see of these two, the better. When their purpose in the narrative was to be the hapless crooks with a happy family whose safety from secondary thug Nacho wound up in Jimmy’s hands, they worked just fine. Put them in a position of power where they’re suddenly calling the shots over the lawyer’s life, though? Their cartoonishness gets so glaring you start to wonder if you’re watching some kind of Space Jam-style blend of live-action and animation. Jimmy’s comparison of Craig to nebbishy Ned Flanders was dead-on, but Betsy’s delusional, self-righteous shrewishness isn’t just overly broad and unfunny — it’s dangerously close to the misogynistic “bad fan” view of Skyler White.
But as we learned last week when the show shattered years of Mike’s deadly deadpan to uncover the emotional tragedy underneath, revealing a new side of an old character earns a lot of goodwill. In that light, the Kettlemans are a minor annoyance compared to the power of the hour’s final scene. Once again, Jimmy’s done the right thing at his own expense, robbing clients to save their bacon and then ordering them to re-hire Kim to save hers. But this unexpected career rebound makes her less likely than ever to leave the firm and partner with him, legally or otherwise. So he walks into the corner office he’d hoped she would one day occupy, closes the door, and flips out. Yelling, crying, punching the wall, venting years of personal and professional disappointment — who is this man, and what has he done with James Morgan McGill?
On Breaking Bad, Saul had three settings: greed, fear, and entertaining bullshit. The larval form we’ve come to know in BCS is a good deal more nuanced, yet he’s still been driven by a limited number of factors: frustration, finances, fraternal affection for his sick brother Chuck. But while we’ve seen him get bent over plenty of times, we’d never seen him break. Beneath the bluster is a human being in enough pain to make him literally lash out at the world. That’s the kind of hurt a person will radically remake their own life to avoid. It takes way more than a new name or a fancy new office, however, to leave yourself behind.
Previously: Officer Down