5.0

Better Call Saul Review: "Alpine Shepherd Boy" (Episode 1.05)

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<i>Better Call Saul</i> Review: "Alpine Shepherd Boy" (Episode 1.05)

Note: Mr. Josh Jackson is off this week, so I’ll be writing the review all by lonesome. We will return to your regularly scheduled epistolary programming next week.

I’m giving this episode a flat 5.0 for a specific reason—I can’t really drum up any emotion, positive or negative. On one hand, I wasn’t exactly bored watching “Alpine Shepherd Boy.” I kept watching without protest, but if it sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, well, you’re right. Because the flip side of this tepid endorsement is that if you had stopped the episode halfway through and told me I wasn’t allowed to finish it—EVER!—that would have been okay too. Better Call Saul came with a lot of hype from its parent show, Breaking Bad, but the modern audience is flighty and noncommittal, and the question Vince Gilligan and his writers have to answer, as the show enters the second half of its first season, is why anyone should bother to stay on this ship. The fact that it’s vaguely entertaining is not answer, and maybe the question should be re-phrased more directly: What is your show about? Or, to try a third time: Why is your show about the shit it should not be about?

(An illustrative point: Josh and I review this show every week, and we both literally forgot about it last night, which is why this piece is coming out on Monday afternoon instead of Monday morning. Josh and I also review The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, and we tackled the last season of Breaking Bad, too. Ask me how many times we actually forgot one of those shows was airing—the answer is zero. When you write about this stuff on a regular basis, you don’t forget about shows that matter.)

But let’s start with the high points. After last week billboard stunt, McGill has attracted a series of oddball clients. The first is a crazy libertarian businessman who wants to secede from the United States, and when he offers McGill a million dollars for his services in fighting the government, it looks for a moment like the day struggle are over. This leads to a truly hilarious punchline: The man wants to pay McGill in the currency of his future sovereign nation. Next, a shiny, smiling, string-tight man has invented a toilet that offers encouragement to children trying to potty train. The problem is that the phrases he’s programmed—”you’re so big” and “give it to me”—are disturbingly sexual. I think I was more skewed out than amused when I actually watched this scene, but as I write it down now, it strikes me as pretty funny. Finally, McGill finds a niche in “elder law”—drawing up wills for dying people, which is so obviously unsustainable for a man of his temperament that it manages to be entertaining by contrast, especially when he purposefully dresses in the double-breasted style of Matlock to earn their trust, and advertises at the bottom of jello containers sold in nursing homes.

I laughed! It’s funny stuff!

Beyond that, though, this episode was a total disorganized mess. McGill’s brother Chuck, played by the admittedly wonderful Michael McKean, is a huge focus—after stealing a neighbor’s newspaper, a series of unfortunate events leads to him getting tased, which is bad news since he’s mentally ill and believes he has an electricity allergy. He winds up in the hospital, where he becomes a plot point between McGill and Chuck’s old partner, Howard Hamlin, who’s afraid that McGill will commit Chuck, become his legal guardian, and demand an expensive buyout from the firm. AND—I can’t emphasize this enough—I don’t care. At all.

The conflict between McGill and Hamlin is aggressively uninteresting, as is the weird, toenail-painting friendship between McGill and Kim Wexler, who works with Hamlin and mainly seems to exist so there’s at least some female presence in this show. In that sense, it reminds me of Breaking Bad—Gilligan and co. seem to write shows that revolve almost exclusively around dudes, and then kind of shoehorn female characters in wherever they kinda/sorta fit. In BB, they drew up an insane kleptomaniac sister-in-law and a harpy wife who nobody liked until a late PC backlash made it impolite to be openly annoyed by her. Here, they go to even less trouble with Wexler, who is—let’s be honest—barely even a character. She’s a plot device for a narrative that nobody cares about. She and Hamlin and even Chuck simply serve to get in the way of the fun, just as Schyler did for Walt and Jesse. I’m not going to condemn the writers if they don’t want to spend time crafting interesting women—it’s their show—but these dull half-measures are insulting.

Then there’s Mike Ehrmantraut, played by the brooding Jonathan Banks. He needs to be a bigger part of this show post-fucking-haste, but all we’ve learned through five episodes is that he’s a grumpy ticket taker at a parking lot, and probably has an estranged daughter. That’s five hours of television without unleashing one of the show’s best characters. I almost feel bad demanding faster-paced storytelling, but seriously, why are they being so coy with this guy? He and McGill should be romping their way across the southwest by now, and instead we have to settle for longing glances between he and his daughter, and a boring scene where he eats at a diner? What the fuck?

Early on, Josh and I talked about the need for this show to follow the fun. McGill mixing it up among the criminal underworld—or hell, even the old and eccentric—is fun. Ehrmantraut being a stoic badass is fun. So, let’s go! Time is of the essence, Mr. Gilligan—kill off Chuck with a lightning storm, blow up Hamlin’s law firm while he and Wexler are inside, and quit beating around the bush. An hour or two of set-up is plenty, four hours is excessive, and five hours is unforgivable. The declining ratings are proof that you’re wasting all that Breaking Bad good will. We can’t wait much longer, but this is not hopeless. You’re holding good cards—PLAY THEM.

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