A review of tonight’s Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I choose White Heat without interruption over Jaws 3-D with commercials…
“And when is it over for you?” -Mr. Varga
Late in this week’s episode (“Breathe”), Jimmy calls Mike to arrange some kind of caper involving the expensive Hummel figurines he saw in Mr. Neff’s office during his job interview. This is a callback both to his eldercare work in Season One’s “Alpine Shepherd Boy” and to the idea of Jimmy and Mike as occasional partners, before Better Call Saul had so clearly become two largely separate shows operating under the same title. As Mike gets deeper into the cartel world, while the writers do everything they can to slow-play our beloved Jimmy’s transformation into the utterly amoral Saul Goodman, the two halves feel further apart than ever. Some fans love both equally, some prefer one over the other (I lean towards the Jimmy show, which is more emotionally rich and less hemmed in by events from Breaking Bad) and the series itself toggles back and forth between evenly-split Jimmy/Mike episodes and those staying primarily in one world.
“Breathe” mainly takes place on Mike’s side of things, albeit with him appearing only briefly in favor of more dancing between Nacho and Gus. But the Jimmy side provides a lot of vivid moments while we’re there.
Our Mr. McGill remains in the same jaunty mood with which he ended the season premiere. He’s still the breakfast maestro(*), eager to find a job to help pay the bills and get out of Kim‘s hair now that the apartment has become her office. And he easily talks his way into a copier sales job for which he has no on-paper qualifications. We’ve seen Slippin’ Jimmy sell things far more useless than a high-end copy machine, but he can’t exactly walk into Neff’s office and say, “Hey, I’m a con man, so I’m perfect for this gig!”
(*) Walter White Jr. was already impressed with Saul Goodman just from the ads. Imagine if the kid knew what an ace this guy was with the most important meal of the day.
He comes shockingly close to saying exactly that, but only after he’s gotten the job and realized how little he wants it, scolding his befuddled would-be employers by pointing out how easily they let themselves be snowed by a man they never properly vetted: “I could be a serial killer! I could be the guy who pees in your coffee pot!” Why does Jimmy do this? Self-loathing in the wake of Chuck’s suicide? The same allergy to the straight life that led him to blow up the sweet job with Davis and Main? He’s at such an emotional crossroads that even he doesn’t seem entirely sure what he’s doing and why — because as soon as he’s stormed out of Neff’s office, Jimmy places a call about the next job on his list, and later seems genuinely enthusiastic with Kim about some of the other leads.
Kim has an even bigger, and more easily understood, outburst in the episode. As executor of Chuck’s estate, Howard breaks down exactly how he chose to shaft Jimmy: a $5000 inheritance – just big enough to prevent Jimmy from contesting the will, but not even big enough to float him for very long during this period of unemployment — and a seat on the board of the scholarship Chuck is setting up with money that Jimmy won’t get. Between that final insult, the promise of whatever cruel sentiments exist in the letter Chuck left for his brother and Howard’s confession at the end of the premiere, Kim has completely had it with both her living ex-boss and the dead one. Rhea Seehorn is amazingly raw in this scene – the muscles in her neck seem on the verge of bursting out of her skin as she lists all the humiliations visited upon Jimmy from beyond the grave. Kim’s protective streak towards her boyfriend leads to the most tender and intimate scene the twosome have shared in quite a while, when we’ve long since grown used to them as a couple who are close but not usually physically affectionate.
Those scenes are fantastic, but “Breathe” is primarily concerned with cartel business, as Gus and Nacho each plot their next moves in the wake of Hector‘s debilitating but non-fatal stroke.
It’s a tremendous episode for Michael Mando, who seems wearier and wearier with each successive scene. Removing Hector from the board was supposed to solve all of Nacho’s problems, but it hasn’t. His father still barely speaks with him. The Cousins have come back across the border to guard their revered uncle and stare daggers at anyone around him. Arturo has opted to step into the power vacuum and run the local operation, and he turns out to be infected with the same macho posturing as every other Heisen-verse kingpin, forcing an armed stand-off between Nacho and Victor over an extra kilo from Gus’s supply. By the time the pistols have been put away again, the look on Nacho’s face is sheer exhaustion as he ponders an eternity of working for one cocksure idiot like this after another.
Moments later, he’s out of the impulsive frying pan and into the calculating fire, as Gus emerges from nowhere to asphyxiate Arturo with a plastic bag, while blackmailing Nacho with the knowledge of what happened to Don Hector’s pills. It is, like many of the Chicken Man’s moves, swift, brutal and thorough. He owns Nacho now, more completely than Hector or Tuco ever did. Gus is in many ways an improvement as a boss over any of the Salamancas, but his new right-hand man is less an employee to him than a tool to be used and discarded in his long-simmering revenge plot. Every Victor appearance functions as a reminder of how Gus can treat underlings who have served him long and well; just imagine what can happen to Nacho should his utility cease.
All these scenes are tense and well-crafted, but there can be an unavoidable air of puzzle-solving to them: How do we get all the pieces into the right position for Walt and Jesse to one day see them? Jimmy has a professional destination he has to arrive at just as much as Mike and Gus do. But he has a much bigger personal journey to take along the way, where they’re relatively close to the men who turned up in Breaking Bad Season Two. When the series began, there was a charge to the Jimmy/Mike scenes not only because of the chemistry between Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks, but because each encounter seemed to be pulling Jimmy closer to Heisenberg territory. At this point, I get excited at even the suggestion of them reuniting because it might force Mike to spend more time in the uncharted territory that is the Jimmy McGill show, before “Saul” permanently goes over to his side.
Some other thoughts:
* This is only the second Saul episode (after Season One’s “Mijo”) to be directed by Michelle MacLaren, the best regular Breaking Bad director (“4 Days Out,” “One Minute,” “To’hajiilee”). There aren’t any big action beats for her to flex that particular muscle, but she gets great work out of the cast (Seehorn and Mando in particular) and the tension is palpable throughout. Hopefully her busy schedule allows her to come back next season. I’d love to have her behind the camera for a big Mike caper. And in the meantime, it’s great to have her directing the Cousins again, after she saw them off so spectacularly in “One Minute.”
* Mike’s meeting with Lydia at the Hotel Chaco clarifies what he was doing in Las Cruces in the season premiere: playing security consultant for Madrigal is a way to backstop any investigation into the source of his laundered money. That it’s yet another way to impress Gus doesn’t seem to be in Mike’s thoughts yet, but it is having that side effect nonetheless, even as it makes Lydia jittery as usual.
* I’m occasionally asked whether the wig Odenkirk wears is meant to be Jimmy’s actual hair or a toupee. I’ve always taken it as Jimmy’s real hair — an inelegant but necessary way to connote that Bob is playing about 15 years younger than he is now. This episode seems to provide confirmation, as Jimmy is alarmed to find some loose hair strands in his palm before he goes in to see Neff. This sets us up for the inevitable Saul Goodman comb over as he gets into the thick (or thin) of male pattern baldness.
* Saul doesn’t lean too heavily on its early 2000s period setting, but there’s something poignant in hearing Jimmy’s ode to the importance of the copier, given our move to an increasingly paper-less society. My guess is Neff’s business is much less robust in 2018, if he’s still in business at all.
What did everybody else think?
Previously: Funeral for a Friend