Better Call Saul: “Nacho”

TV Reviews better call saul
Better Call Saul: “Nacho”

Paste writer Shane Ryan and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson review each week of Better Call Saul after getting lost by missing the left turn in Albuquerque.

Josh,

Okay, I’ve made it through “Nacho,” which—aside from seeing Mike Ehrmantraut outside his parking booth—was a slight step backward from last week’s episodes. The plot was like a bizarro version of Bunny’s disappearance in The Big Lebowski (she kidnapped herself!), and Saul tries to solve that mystery on his own in order to keep Nacho Varga from finishing what he and Tuco started in the desert. It took an oddly long time to get there, and I have no idea what purpose this blond lawyer serves, but I guess it wasn’t totally unsatisfying in the end… just a little predictable.

Before we get deeper into that, though, I have a bigger problem I want to discuss. Josh, I’m worried about Bob Odenkirk. More specifically, I’m worried about his hand gestures. I feel like I’m going crazy, and maybe I’m the only one who notices this, but McGill never delivers a single line without lifting a hand in the gun-pointing motion—pointer and middle finger together, thumb flared wide, pinky and ring finger tucked. His arms look oddly stiff while he’s doing it, and it’s starting to become a distracting mannerism. It’s like watching a robot try to make human gestures, and in combination with the ODD moments of VOCAL emphasis—a Saul trait I kinda loved in Breaking Bad—it creates a distinct impression of unreality and, worse, over-acting. For the first time, I found myself not really believing in the character, and while I’m not here to bury a promising show based on what amounts to a distracting tic, it does seem like a problem. I know, I know—why am I focusing on this, of all things? The answer is that I can’t help it… Saul turned into a weird caricature last night, especially in the opening prison scene with his brother, a flashback that was oddly uncomfortable to watch, especially when you contrasted Odenkirk’s rambling with the steady presence of Michael McKean.

My question is: Can Odenkirk anchor the narrative twists and turns that we know are coming? Cranston could in Breaking Bad, and while I know I’m not in the majority on this one, I think without his intensity, and his ability to honor the high stakes of each moment, the writers wouldn’t have gotten away with some of the more ridiculous plot points of the series. Saul has a lot in common with its predecessor, including gorgeous cinematography, a mix of gentle dad humor and awful violence, and the occasional twist that’s going to make you think, “wait…really?” Which is fine—it can still be fun, and it can still be dramatic, as we saw in the first two episodes. Without an excellent lead character, though, the absurdities will collapse on themselves, and last night, for the first time, I had my doubts that Odenkirk was up to the job.

Again, I’m not forecasting failure. At least not yet. But “Nacho” underwhelmed me, and it’s almost like I could feel the first tremors of an impending earthquake—when we get sick of Odenkirk’s performance, the show doesn’t stand a chance.

Am I overreacting, Josh? And what the hell is a “Chicago Sun Roof,” the scam McGill pulled to land him in jail, and nearly on the sex offender’s registry?

—Shane

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Shane,

Imagine you’re Bob Odenkirk and you’ve been asked to create a character who’s a lovable sleazy lawyer, whose personality and mannerisms take him close enough to the edge of believability that he has the potential of becoming iconic—the über representation of a type. Now imagine you’re asked to play the younger, hyper-sleazy version of that character who’s not been mellowed or wizened by hard lessons learned. There’s no where to go except off that cliff of believability and into Cartoonland. I love Saul Goodman. I love James McGill in the desert. I’m not really looking forward to more from Slippin’ Jimmy. All the mouth with none of the substance.

It’s hard not to compare Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad, but while the latter’s protagonist walked a pretty direct path from “good” to “bad,” Saul’s seems like it’s going from “bad” to “complicated.” Already you get a sense that Slippin’ Jimmy would have taken the finder’s fee for helping rob the corrupt accountant. He certainly wouldn’t have warned his family. So he’s already grown a conscience, but we know where this story is headed. From moral bankruptcy to moral “trying to make a living” and back again?

But while the rest of the episode didn’t match the heights of the two-part premiere, I thought there were still moments to enjoy once we left the prison flashback. McGill’s hilarious attempts to disguise his voice while warning the family. His escalating feud with Mike at the security gate. His confrontation with the fugitive campers and ensuing tug-of-war over a pile of money. I’m not as worried as you about Odenkirk continuing to carry the load, but I do think we need to see other characters begin stepping up, Mike chief among them.

As far as a Chicago sunroof goes, a quick look on Urban Dictionary reveals a couple creative guesses, but everything was added after last night’s episode, so it’s really up to your own imagination. I’d love to hear three guesses, but maybe keep them PG-13?

—Josh

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Josh,

1. The Chicago Sun Roof scam is where you buy a taxi cab and pick up an affluent-looking (but not physically imposing) customer in a part of the city that isn’t very crowded. When you pick him up, another man jumps up on the street, asks him where he’s going, and, wouldn’t you know it, the second passenger is headed to the same exact place. They both jump in the cab. Once you’ve driven to a remote part of the city with little-to-no foot traffic, the second passenger—who, you’ve now guessed, is a confederate—grabs the DRIVER’s wallet and sprints out of the cab. The driver begins shouting, takes off in hot pursuit, and the two are never to be seen again. Finally, while the puzzled and stressed man looks after them, a large, intimidating man in a cop uniform approaches. He tells the passenger that they’ve had a report of a stolen cab, and asks why the vehicle has no driver. When the man tells his story, the cop scoffs and threatens to arrest him. The man, now terrified, repeats his story, but the cop says there have been a rash of these incidents, and unless the man pays a fine and agrees never to steal again, he’s going to jail. The man pays—he just wants it all to be over—the cop (a fake) leaves, and splits the money three ways with his two confederates.

2. The Chicago Sun Roof is a brutal mob retribution technique invented by John Dillinger whereby they take an informant or other enemy, pick out a low impediment the car can just clear, stick the man’s head out of the sun roof, and drive as fast as they can. (That’s so awful, and I hate myself for thinking of it.)

3. The Chicago Sun Roof is an alternate version of the scam the two skateboarders were pulling in first episode. In this case, one person waits on a shallow ledge above a road late at night in a bad neighborhood, leaps onto the top of a passing car (sometimes falling through, hence the “sun roof” name), and, when the dust settles and the car pulls over, an irate “brother” comes storming onto the street. When he sees what happens, he pulls a gun and vows to seek his revenge. When it turns out the jumper isn’t dead, he becomes slightly less hysterical, but demands all the money and valuables the driver has with him. Terrified, the driver complies, happy to get away from the bad neighborhood with his life. Originated in the south side of Chicago.

How are those? I’d love to hear three more from you, but that seems unfair. Instead, I’d like you to compare and contrast the character of Slippin’ Jimmy with the boring version of Walter White—the henpecked chemistry teacher—and determine which would be the worst lead character on a sitcom.

—Shane

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Shane,

Remind me never to get on your bad side. Revenge will either be really elaborate or just plain brutal.

As far as the worst sit-com character, it’s hard to be worse than a bland high-school chemistry teacher, but Slippin’ Jimmy just might trump all. He’s probably got a catch phrase to cue the laughtrack. “She was practically begging for it.” Each episode ends with “I swear that’ll never happen again.”

But then I imagine the supporting cast of Breaking Bad in a sitcom, and I cringe. The one where Marie steals the shoes. The one where Walt Jr. uses the fake ID. The one where Skyler is on screen. Trying to imagine meek Walter White in the middle of all that may just be worse.

That said, the subtle humor of Better Call Saul still has me hooked. I just hope I’m not going to be distracted by his hand gestures now that you mention them.

Stay gold, Saul.

—Josh

You can follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter.

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