Note: The e-mail exchange reviews between Josh and Shane will continue next week.
The first season of Better Call Saul has been a story up dramatic ups and downs—compelling storyline mixed with frustrating diversions. Two weeks ago, I wondered if the jig was up, and if Vince Gilligan and the writers would ever capitalize on the show’s undeniable potential. Last week, those fears were assuaged with the best episode of the series, and Josh and I could only rave. And now here we are after episode seven, “Bingo,” which managed to incorporate everything that’s great and maddening about BCS and distill it into 45 minutes.
Let’s start with the underwhelming material. First off, we have Michael McKean as Chuck, the brother with an imagined allergy to electricity. I’ve yet to understand his purpose, and as we near the end of the season, I don’t think I can be accused of being impatient. In “Bingo,” we get the minor update that he’s forcing himself to stand outside for two minutes at a time in order to inoculate himself and eventually emerge from his hermetic experience to practice law once more. There will undoubtedly come a point, probably in the season finale, when something dramatic happens to Chuck that forever alters the course of McGill’s existence—maybe it will destroy his last vestige of morals and send him on the path to becoming Saul Goodman, or maybe Chuck’s old law firm will screw him over so bad that McGill vows revenge. Who knows?
The truth is, it doesn’t matter—the irrelevance of this character is almost staggering, and they’ve strung us along too far to make the payoff count. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t care what happens to Chuck, and nothing short of him joining ISIS would really make me raise an eyebrow this late in the game. Just like Chuck’s home, there is no electricity in this part of the narrative, and the sooner we move on, the better.
Then there’s Kim Wexler, the latest of Vince Gilligan’s one-dimensional female characters. Following in the footsteps of Skyler and Marie, Kim’s motivations are murky at best. At least in the case of the Breaking Bad ladies, there was drama and intrigue—even if they didn’t feel like fully dimensional characters, they provoked reactions and drove the plot with their (sometimes bizarre) actions. Wexler? She’s flat-out boring. We get the sense that McGill is in love with her, judging from the way he offered her a corner office in his new firm, and how he went out of his way to decline new business and save her from a professional misstep with the Kettelmans, but there’s never a great explanation for exactly what makes her so compelling. She seems smart and competent, but beyond that, I have no clue why we’re supposed to care about her—and I don’t.
(And look, I get that she’s supposed to be the straight man to McGill, but this isn’t a pure comedy, and even if we need some sort of touchstone for his fluctuations, that touchstone doesn’t need to draw so much attention.)
Chuck and Kim, along with Hamblin, eat up precious minutes of BCS. The fixation on their lives is why I hated “Alpine Shepherd Boy” two weeks ago, and their absence is part of what made last week’s “Five-O” so good. It sounds obvious to say that this show works when it follows its interesting characters—name a show that doesn’t—but those characters are so interesting that its doubly frustrating when they’re given short shrift in favor of the dull and confusing.
Luckily, “Bingo” was about more than Chuck and Kim. We’re approaching the resolution of Mike’s Philadelphia story—he killed two cops after they killed his son for hesitating before he accepted dirty money—and everything now depends on his daughter-in-law staying mum about Mike’s involvement. In this case, we’ve seen the future—Mike is still around in Breaking Bad—so we can pretty well guess how that one goes. Nevertheless, a scene with two Philly detectives lets us see the McGill-Ehrmantraut dynamic in full swing—McGill’s mercurial energy, Mike’s air of mild disgust combined with weary resignation for a world he’s ceased trying to understand, and the mutual suspicion with which they regard one another. They’re a brilliant odd couple, and every second they share on screen is infused with the sort of vitality the show lacks elsewhere.
Even better, we got to see the first real “deal” between the two. The Kettelmans, who seem intent on denying their guilt in an embezzlement scam due to a combination of stupidity and greed (side note: I’d love if these tertiary characters were more believable…I know they don’t command much screen time, but that doesn’t mean they have to be caricatures), found their way to menace McGill for the retainer/bribe he took when he was trying to win their business. They won’t accept Wexler’s very reasonable plea deal, and so they go back to McGill and threaten to reveal his involvement if he won’t represent them and push the case to what will certainly be a disastrous trial. McGill briefly considers acquiescing, but then comes up with a better idea: Get Mike on the case.
Mike’s scheme is brilliant: He leaves a wad of cash outside the Kettelman home, knowing that when they discover it, they’ll add it to the embezzlement funds. Once they go to sleep, he sneaks in, and using a fingerprint wand, he retraces their steps and finds the mother lode. He returns it to McGill, who sends the money on to the DA, and forces the Kettelmans to return to Kim—thereby saving her status at Hamblin, Hamblin, McGill—and accept the plea.
Simply explaining the mechanics of the story doesn’t paint the full picture—Mike’s burglary allows the show to revel in its strength and tell the story in silence. With brooding close-ups, a lone light piercing the darkness, a funky diegetic track, and a trail of ultraviolet fingerprints, they created an action scene that stood up to the best of Breaking Bad. Even the shadowy meetings that ensued, in the faint light of parking garages, contributed to the kind of atmosphere that this show should be seeking out more often.
The episode ends with an emotional outpouring that fell flat for me, especially in contrast with the unbelievable performance Jonathan Banks gave us last week when he had his own catharsis. It’s easy to understand how Mike was affected by the fate of his son, but McGill’s feelings for Wexler resonate a whole lot less—and, frankly, as much as I like Odenkirk, he doesn’t have Banks’ chops. Even so, it led to a satisfying closing shot, with McGill, displaying the resilience that will see him through so much worse than the Kettelman debacle, suppressing his deep pain to accept a phone call. No matter what, slippin’ Jimmy always returns to the hustle.