Better Call Saul has always been two shows for the price of one where I find myself switching between both sides of my brain as I watch. I admire the world-building of this excellent Breaking Bad prequel, looking forward to the future character connections or plot points. At the same time, as a fan of the actual standalone series, I adore the slow-burn and nuanced, original storytelling that Jimmy, Kim, Chuck (R.I.P.), Howard, and Nacho bring. The drug world side of it is this looming sense of dread in which you know Jimmy is going to get absorbed into at some point. It’s a unique dichotomy that is essential to the story that’s being told. That said, I’m noticing more and more that Better Call Saul leaves a large, uncomfortable knot in my stomach the further it goes, which is something I never felt to such an extent with Breaking Bad, even though you knew Walter White’s transformation and surrounding circumstances were going to become worse and worse.
Breaking Bad is a thrill ride, regardless of whether you’re rooting for Walt, but what helps in that regard is the major turning point towards Walt’s bad behavior occurred in the very first episode with his lung cancer diagnosis. After that, it’s bang bang, full steam ahead, placing you squarely on board for its plunge into the dark, whereas with Better Call Saul we know things are going to get bad, but we’re given the opportunity to become attached to Jimmy McGill and understand the smaller details for three entire seasons before the major turning point for Jimmy, being Chuck’s death. We learn that despite Jimmy’s slippery past, he has a good heart with the genuine intention to be good and do right by others. Even while he’s cutting corners or committing flat-out criminal acts, there’s this hope for redemption with his character, despite us already knowing he’s going to become Saul. Chuck played a very important role in squashing any possibility of positive change and that makes Jimmy’s downfall seemingly more tragic.
Walt’s fallout with Gretchen and Gray Matter served as brief, contextual information towards his decision to cook meth and kill people, similar to the little explanatory background most villains are given in stories. That’s not to say morality and the concept of good vs. evil was portrayed as black and white in Walt’s journey, but that Better Call Saul is a slower turn of the knife, allowing the audience to truly experience Jimmy’s fall from grace. Walt’s transformation is more extreme but Jimmy’s hurts more. In my opinion, it’s playing out to be one of television’s greatest stories of tragedy surrounding a lead character (The Wire being a show of greek tragedy not driven by a lead, but the city of Baltimore itself). Kim’s tearful response to Jimmy reading Chuck’s letter is a perfect, long over-due underlining of this.
Jimmy McGill is irreversibly broken here. Not only is he completely vacant of any protest for the measly $5,000 he receives for not contesting Chuck’s will, but he reads his brother’s letter as if a teacher called on a student to read a passage from a textbook. There’s no reveling in the words. Just intermittent slurping of cereal the same way he did when reading the classifieds in the premiere. Jimmy is not okay and even Mike, who’s best known for rolling his eyes and not giving Jimmy a second thought, can clearly see there’s something off in how he’s taking his brother’s death. While a take of $4,000 is pocket change to Mike compared to what he’s making now and not worth the risk (stealing hummel figurines in general being small ball compared to his current line of work), he still could tell that it’s just as ill-fitting a heist for Jimmy as well. It’s an aimless, senseless crime that Jimmy is more championing for the sake of acting out than he is for the money.
Jimmy’s spinning and Kim doesn’t need to witness his recent crime in order to realize this. Her boyfriend is broken to the point where there’s no telling what’s important to him anymore. During the hummel heist, Neff listens to an audio guide on time management which delves into the theme of ‘importance vs. urgency’. This is a hint to what’s going on in the final scene as Jimmy treats Chuck’s letter not as something of importance or value, but as an urgent task to get done with and out of the way.
Impending tragedy isn’t just exclusive to Jimmy but Nacho, who is currently the frontrunner of emotional investment within the drug world narrative, seems to be getting dealt a worse hand with each passing week. I remember back in season 3’s “Off Brand” review, when Victor held Nacho at gunpoint, I made this following observation:
I believe Nacho is a guy who has no problem being a criminal and being part of a criminal organization, but despite being a ‘tough’ when he has to be, he doesn’t prefer it. He’s not Jesse Pinkman, but he does have humanity in him. I imagine when he was in the presence of Tyrus and Victor, he saw himself in them. He was among true peers in that moment, those of whom are smart and no-nonsense working for a much more well-collected, level-headed, business man. And yet, they’re unfortunately enemies. I don’t doubt that if the opportunity ever presented itself possible, Nacho would want to work for a guy like Gus where things run smoothly.
In an alternate timeline, this would have made a lot of sense, but apply that wishful thinking to his current circumstances and it’s a living nightmare. Gone are the days when Nacho could intimidatingly tell off a nerdy Daniel Wormald (Pryce) that their business is done after giving back the stolen baseball cards. Now, as his life hangs in the balance, he’s being told off by the vet, Dr. Caldera (essentially a glasses-wearing polar opposite to Wormald in terms of intimidation), to never show his face to him again. Nacho has been shot (for appearances) unsympathetically by the group he’s now working for and has been saved (Marco pumping his own blood into him) by the very group he’s betrayed. He’s eternally trapped and has lost complete ownership over his life.
An astounding performance of Tom Lehrer’s song “The Elements” aside, Gale’s surprising return at first glance could be seen as a fan-service cameo, primarily being used to help set up Gus’ relationship with him (despite Breaking Bad already establishing that Gus put him through school), but I believe it serves more than that. It needed to be acknowledged that Gale is being groomed but wouldn’t be the outside supplier Gus uses under short notice as they halt distribution across the border. Is this where the mysterious Lalo comes in? It’s obviously in Gus’ favor for an outside supplier to be used under the situation he’s orchestrated, so whoever will fill that role must be a benefit to him in some fashion.
Other things to note:
-I don’t think we know why Kim needed to be at the courthouse. Unless I’m missing something? I don’t think she tampered with Chuck’s letter either. It’s unlike her and Chuck does care for Jimmy, regardless of the last words he said to him. Plus the letter seems to have been written before the Mesa Verde drama. I did notice the mysterious score that played when Kim was pacing around Kevin Wachtell’s bank models, which didn’t cue in until Kevin mentioned their future Nebraska location (Kim’s small hometown residing near the Nebraska/Kansas border). Ever since season 2’s “Inflatable”, Kim was oddly vague in her interview with Schweikart about where she came from. It poses a question of her past life. Something of which may be connected to where she might be in the future as Gene hangs low in Omaha. I’m really interested to know what’s going on in her head in that moment other than feeling overwhelmed by what seems like an endless, unrewarding venture for Mesa Verde. She definitely seems to have no gripes with letting her new assistant take lead on most of the work.
-I texted my friend on a commercial break, speculating that we might see Todd at some point in regards to the B&E hire considering Saul is the one who introduced Vamanos Pest to Walt and Jesse, citing that he’s been “pulling their chestnuts out of the fire, legally speaking, for five years.” I was half-right as Jimmy’s recruit was Ira, Vamanos Pests’ owner, which means Todd might be right around the corner. Ira, as far as I can tell, was never involved with Uncle Jack and the neo-nazis. I like his character and I look forward to him getting more screen time in the future. The character has a charming Brian Posehn quality and I loved Dave Porter’s choice to accompany his heist with a light-hearted, bumbling score.
-In the cold open, I still can’t tell if the hubcap bouncing off the road and hitting the camera lens was an effect story-boarded and digitally added in or was it just a wonderful accident. Gordon Smith wrote and Daniel Sackheim (The X-Files) directed this one, being the same duo who worked on last season’s climactic “Chicanery”. An opening scene like this truly shows the range of their work.
-Oh and I love the adorable opening shot of the horned lizard spiking the camera (looking straight into the lens). It was as if the creature was welcoming us into the episode.