Episode names haven’t always been a priority for television shows. In the time before internet that was perfectly forgivable. Unless a viewer was slavishly devoted to their trusty copy of TV Guide, they might not even be aware that episodes were supposed to have names. But then came cable boxes and the info button on remotes, exhaustive Wikipedia entries and the miracle of Netflix streaming. Now episode names pop up virtually every time an episode is clicked on.
Still, episode names remain an under appreciated and often-ignored part of the art of making television. They are not without their champions, however, and Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan is one of them. Vince Gilligan knows better than anyone the power of online streaming services after the popularity of his masterpiece Breaking Bad became a cultural phenomenon thanks to Netflix instead of a critically-regarded but Nielsen challenged show. As a result, he always took care to name his Breaking Bad episodes something interesting since they would pop up on computer or TV screens every time a viewer clicked “next episode” during a multi-hour binge.
With the first season of Better Call Saul, however, (the second season of which debuts February 15), Gilligan outdid himself. Better Call Saul is the rare artful and interesting show whose episode titles are equally as artful and interesting. Nine of the ten first season episodes followed a specific naming convention except for one episode in the middle to create a fun at worst, and dramatically interesting at best effect.
The names are:
5. Alpine Shepherd Boy
You’ll notice a pattern right off the bat, which is that every episode ends in “o.” The effect is fun and playful sure but it also captures the smooth-talking nature of the series protagonist. Granted, that may be reading in a little too much but this is the pop culture era of reading into much to things. At the very least, the formatting of the episode names is worth a second’s thought, which cannot be said for so many of the perfunctory, often careless episode names of other shows…even other great shows.
Since Gilligan and company took the time to give a damn about the names of each season one episode, let’s take the time to analyze and appreciate them one by one…
This one is fairly obvious as it’s the first episode of the series. There doesn’t seem to be any alternate meaning as no one is spotted playing the card game “UNO” during the episode. It does beg the question, though, did the writers come up with the “O” naming convention before writing this episode or because of this episode?
“Mijo” is a Spanish term of endearment – a combination of “mi” for “my” and “hijo” for “son. The “mijo” in question is Tuco Salamanca – the first “big bad” on Breaking Bad who appears here in the prequel, living with his sweet mother who is all too happy to call him “mijo.” Suffice it to say, there is a sharp different between the mijo that Señora Salamanca deals with and the sociopathic monster that Jimmy McGill is being terrorized by.
The name “Mijo” is also another example of how much dramatic mileage Gilligan has been able to extract from his Albuquerque setting. The Spanish culture in New Mexico worked perfectly in Breaking Bad’s “nuevo Western” tone and now for Better Call Saul it provides an easy path to maintaining an all “o” episode format.
Nacho is the second episode in a row named after a person and the second episode in a row with a Spanish influence. Nacho is Tuco’s cousin, Ignacio “Nacho” Varga. He is largely abandoned plot-wise by season’s end but is crucially important early on. He is brought in for supposedly kidnapping the rich Kettleman family and he forces Jimmy to be his attorney. This seems like it could be Jimmy’s introduction to the seedy underbelly of Albuquerque. Instead, he gets Nacho off the hook and resumes his passion of trying to be an honest attorney.
Not that honest, though. “Hero” is an apt name for episode four as it’s what Jimmy hopes to present himself as without doing any of the work. He stages the rescue of a worker falling off a billboard while on a TV news show to drum up some business. It’s a fascinating dichotomy because Jimmy really is at this point in his life trying to be a hero to people in need, while his core personality knows no other way to get his law firm rolling other than sheer con artistry and trickery.
Alpine Shepherd Boy
The thing about patterns is that whatever breaks the pattern has meaning and worth…even if it intrinsically wouldn’t otherwise. “Alpine Shepherd Boy” could have been called “Donut Farts” or something equally nonsensical and it would still have inherent value as the only episode name to deviate from the pattern.
So why does “Alpine Shepherd Boy” actually deviate from the “o” pattern? The real answer is that it wasn’t supposed to. “Alpine Shepherd Boy” was originally called “Jello” as Jimmy prints advertisements for his law firm at the bottom of Jell-O containers at the old folks’ home. Better Call Saul was unable to get permission to use the copyright for the brand “Jell-O” so they went with Alpine Shepherd Boy.
What is an Alpine Shepherd Boy? Within the episode, it refers to a porcelain figurine of an alpine shepherd boy that an elderly woman who collects such figurines owns and is excited to show Jimmy while he writes her will.
But why is the episode ultimately called that? It’s anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s about the fragility of life or maybe it’s referring to Jimmy’s ultimate role of being the shepherd of the innocent and vulnerable that he will eventually cast aside for cold hard cash. Any guess or theory is legitimate. And it’s all because Better Call Saul decided to create a pattern of episode titles…and then abandon it. Sometimes it’s easy to create meaning out of thin air.
The term “Five-O” is synonymous with police officers. Interestingly, it’s not because “Five-O” is an official term or designation for police officers or anything has has to do with the law but rather because the cop show Hawaii Five-O was called that merely because Hawaii is the 50th state.
Fittingly, “Five-O” is all about cops – the crooked ones and the good ones. It’s an extended flashback to Mike’s life as an ex-cop in Philadelphia, the son he disappointed and the crooked cops he subsequently had to kill. “Five-O” is about as succinct and perfect a name as possible.
“Bingo” refers to Jimmy’s new racket of hosting Bingo night for the elderly as part of his will-writing service. It’s an appropriate name for an episode at this point in the series as Jimmy really is spending an inordinate amount of time pursuing this will-writing job.
If we’re stretching, “bingo” can also be interpreted as “Bingo!” as in a “Eureka!” type moment. In that case, Jimmy’s ultimate plan to get the Kettlemans off his back and back to HHM to settle their case would certainly apply.
Anyone who has watched The Sopranos or one scene in The Dark Knight can tell you that “RICO” refers to “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.” It’s the law designed largely to charge crimes made as part of a criminal organization. Jimmy wisely realizes that the Sandpiper Crossing retirement home can be charged under RICO for having engaged in illegal interstate commerce.
The RICO trial against Sandpiper Crossing will take up the majority of the final two episodes and represents what should be Jimmy’s proudest moment…should.
“Five-O” rightfully gets a lot of attention as the definitive Mike Ehrmantraut episode but “Pimento” shouldn’t be ignored. “Pimento” refers to the pimento sandwich that is the only thing that Mike comes armed with while on task to be a bodyguard to a man selling secrets to organized crime.
Mike being Mike, the pimento sandwich is all he really needs as he effortlessly disarms one mercenary and in the process scares off another to become the only bodyguard for the job. “Pimento” is perhaps the biggest stretch of all the “o” named episodes but still does an admirable job of representing what’s great about the show’s characters in a subtle way.
The season finale has been criticized at times for being anti-climactic. Instead of pursuing the narrative thread of Jimmy’s brother Chuck essentially betraying him, “Marco” takes Jimmy back to Chicago to begin running cons with his old accomplice Marco. They run several successful scams but on one occasion where Marco is supposed to fake having a heart attack, he suffers a real one and dies. Marco’s death is what seems to galvanize Jimmy on top of his brother’s betrayal and he promises that whatever stopped him from taking the embezzled $1.6 million from the Kettlemans, “it’s never stopping (him) again.”
It’s a fascinating left turn for the finale of a major TV drama – switching tacts and settings entirely from what was a fast-moving plot back in Albuquerque. It’s such a needless, yet interesting departure that I have to wonder if the writers’ dedication to the “o” episode names actually played a role. Ten episodes into the season, I can imagine a circumstance in which the writers really needed an episode name that ended in an “o” and elected to go with “Marco” since he had been introduced previously as Jimmy’s criminal accomplice, then worked around that. There’s no other evidence to support this other than the episode name being “Marco” and the finale itself being an unexpected departure from the norm.
But still I think it’s possible. And if that’s the case, I’m o.k. with it. As I’ve discussed, episode names are important now – and if they’re so important, why shouldn’t they drive the plot every now and again?
Bless Vince Gilligan for taking an underappreciated part of T.V. dramas, the episode titles, and having the audacity to appreciate them. Also bless him for knowing when to quit. The “o’s” were fun but they have a limit, especially after the stretches that were “Pimento” and “Marco.” The title of the season two premiere? “Switch.” Who knows, maybe episode two will be called “Witch” or “Pitch.”