Paste writer Shane Ryan and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson review each week of Better Call Saul grounded from all electronics.
You’ve said that you enjoy the show when Jimmy gets down in the grime, well it doesn’t get any more grimy than the dumpster of a nursing home. The image of James McGill taking a phone call from an upscale law firm while hiding out among used adult diapers and the leftover buffet is partly what makes this more this more than your typical law show. And the punchline of his belated discovery of the recycle bin was one of the funniest shots of the show so far.
But it is a lawyer show at its heart, and in “Rico,” we saw the beginnings of the McGill brothers’ first big case together. Knowing how you feel about Chuck (which I still don’t understand), I’m guessing you didn’t love this episode, which was mostly focused on their dynamic. Jimmy has pulled a “Tom Sawyer” on his older brother and gotten him to complete his wills. For Jimmy, this is less about getting free labor and more about getting his brother back into law. It works when he brings home what could be a massive class-action lawsuit against a group of retirement homes bilking its residents.
But it all begins with a flashback of James finding out he’s passed the bar—a quest which he kept secret from his brother, all while working in the mailroom of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. We see a reformed Slippin’ Jimmy, working his ass of to go the respectable route, only to be rebuffed by the ever-patronizing Howard Hamlin. He’s a one-dimensionally smarmy character who last week banished Kim Wexler to crappy offices when she lost her client and then basked in all the glory when she (with the help of McGill) got them back.
He’s not worthy of great Gilligan villains like Gus Fring or Todd Alquist or Hector Salamanca. But we can see where all this is headed—Hamlin is ready to swoop down upon this case now that Chuck’s focus on lawyering led him outside to the car without a thought and sent him back into electricity panic. The case will be too big for Jimmy on his own, but he won’t be able to bear the thought of giving it to HH&M.
Meanwhile, we only got to see bits of Mike’s world. His daughter-in-law asks for help, and he gets to spend time with his granddaughter, the only thing in the world that remains dear to him. So dear, in fact, that when he finds out about their financial troubles, he goes to the vet who sewed him up to look for some legally questionable side work. It’s the first sign that Mike is going to become the Mike we know and love from Breaking Bad.
So I enjoyed the episode more than last week—Jimmy in the bathroom writing a legal writ on toilet paper was classic. But I’m not sure I loved it, and I’m predicting that you didn’t either. There were no moments of our favorite pairing, McGill and Mike. No trips to the nail salon. And no real threatening criminals to get mixed up with. This was just good ol’ fashioned lawyering, all on the up and up. And while that beats every current law drama not named The Good Wife, that’s not where this show becomes really special.
As you guessed, I have conflicting thoughts on this episode. On one hand, I actually thought they used Chuck better than they have all season—by getting him involved with Jimmy in the potential class action suit, they brought him back from the strange, isolated corner he was occupying in the narrative and integrated him into the main theme. On the other, I think the identity crisis with this show is alive and well. Last night, we saw the beginning of a very interesting law drama. And I mean that—the Sandpiper drama held my interest. But I don’t bet why we’re seeing it, if that makes sense. It’s a different kind of episode than we’ve seen, and when I call BCS “uneven,” this is what I mean. The focus meanders from episode to episode (sometimes even with the episode), and while I hate to sound like a rigid viewer who demands clockwork efficiency, I still feel a little like I don’t know what this show is about.
Let’s take a look at the eight episodes so far, and attach a short description to each:
1. “Uno” — Introduction, skateboard scam, tone feels like a light-hearted Breaking Bad episode.
2. “Mijo” — Negotiating the broken legs with Tuco, and Jimmy’s first real introduction to the criminal underworld. Very Breaking Bad
3. “Nacho” — A shift away from Nacho, and to the discovery of the Kettlemans hiding in their “backyard”
4. “Hero” — Basically, a whole hour revolving around Jimmy’s billboard stunt
5. “Alpine Shepherd Boy” — The story of how Jimmy gets into elder law, and the worst episode of the series so far
6. “Five-O” — Mike’s backstory, which is fair enough and welcome at this point, because we see he and Jimmy join forces
7. “Bingo” — Jimmy saves Kim’s bacon as the Kettleman story comes back to the forefront
8. “Rico” — Now Jimmy is working with his brother to solve a nursing home case
We should draw a distinction here between a TV series that is “episodic” in nature, like Law & Order, and one that follows a single story throughout a season, like most of the great modern dramas (including Breaking Bad). If BCS is going to be episodic, I feel like we should have know that right away, and maybe we could step back and be less critical of how it keeps shifting from week to week. But I don’t think that’s the case—this has always been marketed as the story of how a man named McGill became Saul Goodman—and right now the wavering just feels like a case of the writers having no idea what to do with this story. That can’t be a great sign in the first season, right?
It all feels like dithering, to be honest, and even if most of the episodes are compelling enough on their own to hold our interest, it’s not great for the future of the show. Both of the following statements are true: 1. I enjoyed “Rico” well enough to watch it to the end, and 2. It detracted from my enjoyment of the series as a whole, and made it less likely that I would continue to watch. It’s almost like dating someone fun and occasionally exciting at a point in life where you want marriage and kids. Sure, the roller skating rink was a great time, but if this isn’t going anywhere, each “fun” date only makes it clear that there’s no future. Watching BCS, right now, feels like committing to something that is never going to pay off. James McGill is never going to put a ring on it.
Am I making sense? I will say this—I really wish there was a magical way to know how we’d feel about BCS if we had never heard of Breaking Bad. My gut tells me we wouldn’t really be paying attention to it by this point, but then again, it’s also possible that I’m judging it too harshly because of its predecessor.
So what do you think, Josh? How would we see this show in the absence of the groundwork laid by Walter White? And is my commitment talk resonating at all with you, or am I being too harsh and impatient?
I think you nailed what’s been so frustrating about the show so far. It’s not exactly episodic, but most of the arcs have been resolved pretty quickly. And a whole new thread was begun last night with only two episodes left to wrap it up. Walter White never met a challenge that could be overcome in less than half a season.
But that’s a comparison I’m sure the showrunners would love for us to stop making. Better Call Saul was billed as an hour-long dark comedy, making it more akin to Orange Is the New Black or Pushing Daisies, and it still mostly succeeds on that front.
In other words, I don’t need James to propose marriage; I’m happier with where things are right now, and I’m glad you’re coming around on Chuck. Even more, though, I’m glad to see Mike getting into the game. Back to one last comparison to Breaking Bad: Much of the enjoyment of watching that series came from seeing how Walter White would use his cunning to squirm out of impossible situations. The combination of Mike and Saul equals all kinds of cunning—and squirminess—and that promise will have me sticking with it for a long time.
So yes, while I understand your concerns, I think you’re being too harsh when you say we wouldn’t be paying attention if not for Breaking Bad. I think we’d be talking about how fresh and funny Better Call Saul really is. But after the near-perfect conclusion of Breaking Bad, I think we can give Vince Gilligan the benefit of the doubt that he knows where this show is headed. Besides, don’t you want to see what kinds of jobs Mike starts taking?
Fair enough. And yes, I want to see Mike operating in the shadowy back streets of Tucson (do they have shadows in Tucson?), and I’m at least 60 percent curious to see if McGill can bring off a class action lawsuit without losing it to Hamlin. Also, I’m not so sure Chuck has an electricity panic at the end—I feel like it may be an epiphany that helps him finally lick this thing. We’ll see, but you’re right—I’m in, at least for now.
So, with two episodes left, I’m going to make a prediction: Chuck recovers totally, and realizes it’s unethical to take such a huge case away from Hamlin, since his contract only allows for pro bono work. He goes back to work, and takes the Sandpiper class action suit with him. Jimmy realizes he’ll never be able to make it on the straight and narrow—the rules, and douches like Hamlin, will always be there to keep him down. And that’s when his morals will collapse, and he’ll start accepting the kind of deals that he turned down before.
The one thing we still don’t know, here at the end of the first season, is why he changes his name to Saul Goodman. But I think that’s going to play in to Chuck’s return—McGill will either be so infuriated that he wants to separate himself from the family name entirely, or there will be another infringement case, a la the billboard, where the big shots try to keep him from using his rightful name, and Jimmy goes overboard with a full-on change. If that’s the case, maybe we’ll look back on this season as having an arc after all—all these scattered episodic stories mesh together and lead to McGill’s separation from polite society. Slippin’ Jimmy must return, but this time as Slippin’ Saul. I’m ready for that to happen.
Until then, I’ll be here, waiting to be impressed. Gilligan has earned at least a season’s worth of patience, but I have to say that as of now, he’s using it up faster than I would have liked.
Stay gold, Saul.
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