This review contains spoilers.
Well. If you’ll pardon a statement of the blindingly obvious… that was rather Breaking Bad-esque. In more ways than one.
Is this a problem? For me, the fact that the second episode of Better Call Saul is just so damn good makes up for the fact that, stylistically, it owes a hell of a lot to its parent series, from the visual choices – the extreme close-up on the vegetables at the beginning, the striking and peculiar camera angles dotted throughout – to the mounting tension of the desert scenes. It’s not altogether surprising; apart from the shared genealogy, the episode is directed by Michelle MacLaren, who also directed 11 episodes of Breaking Bad, including such nail-biters as One Minute and To’hajilee. But for viewers who may be concerned about Better Call Saul ploughing its own furrow, the similarities could be a sticking point. I’m going to let it slide, though, because it’s just such a pleasure to see writers, directors and actors working at the top of their game.
So let’s talk about Tuco. From the opening scenes in his house, to the aforementioned scenes in the desert, what unfolds is a masterclass in slow-burning tension. It’s painful watching the twins digging themselves further and further into a hole, insulting Tuco’s abuelita and using red-flag words like “police”, and Raymond Cruz absolutely nails his performance, oscillating between quiet care for his grandmother and steely-eyed psychosis with the twins, and later wide-eyed psychosis with Jimmy (special mention must go to his pitch-perfect delivery of the lines “Wow, you got a mouth on you” and “Stop. Helping”). These scenes turn on a knife edge from terrifying darkness (just what is he going to do to them?!) to laugh-out-loud humour (Tuco hiding the gun behind his back as he speaks softly to his abuelita), and MacLaren and writer Peter Gould continue to execute these hairpin atmospheric turns perfectly all the way up to the episode’s halfway mark. Going from one emotion to the other so rapidly could, in lesser hands, be a recipe for disaster, but it’s flawlessly judged here, culminating in the sublime black comedy of Jimmy attempting to negotiate the two bound and gagged skateboarders’ fates down from a death sentence to a less permanent injury.
Bob Odenkirk, once again, is brilliant. He finds so many different sides to Jimmy in this episode, flashing from placatory to bargaining to furious to terrified, but the performance never once feels showy; every single choice is simply spot-on. You can see his mind working at lightspeed as he comes up with ever-more extravagant ruses, trying to get first himself and then the two hapless skateboarders out of trouble, and we see every single shade, every thought process.
The fact that he does stick around to help the twins is also an important thematic point, and the responsibility, guilt and sense of fairness that he exhibits is part of something that I think I misinterpreted in my analysis of the first episode, where I suggested that Jimmy was mostly out for profit. It’s certainly on his mind, but more importantly, this episode shows that the public defence work he’s undertaking is his attempt to go straight, and to stop himself from “backsliding” and becoming “Slippin’ Jimmy” again, as revealed in the conversation between him and his brother. Their dynamic becomes more interesting by the episode – why is Jimmy so insistent that Chuck take off the space blanket? Is he guilty about his brother’s condition? Or could it be – as I think is implied – that Chuck’s condition is more in his head than he’d like to believe?
“This represents a good thing, ultimately,” says Jimmy, of the hospital bill for two broken legs that “fell out of his pocket”, and he’s telling the truth, ultimately. Would the Saul Goodman we knew in Breaking Bad, having been granted his freedom by a psychotic knife-wielding drug dealer, have turned back and risked everything to help two shmoes to whom he owes pretty much nothing? Two shmoes who were more than happy to throw him to the lions to save their own lives, no less? I doubt it. There is still some decency left in Jimmy McGill, some integrity, and as evidenced by the episode’s bravura – if, arguably, somewhat overlong – montage of his lawyer antics, he’s trying hard to hold on to that, to make something of himself and show his brother – and himself – that he can stand on his own two legitimate feet.
Which makes the final scene, in which Nacho comes by with a less-than-legal proposition, that much crueller. We’ve just seen Jimmy grabbing a few precious seconds to relax with a drink (a very small moment that’s beautifully played by Odenkirk), only to have his peace shattered by an offer that it’s obvious he’s going to have trouble refusing. He makes an almost convincing case for himself… almost. Jimmy’s going to fall from grace (although maybe we need some inverted commas around ‘grace’) – it’s just a question of when, and how.
In other news, I can’t wait to find out exactly how Jimmy and Mike’s sticker-related back-and-forth progresses. Some great comedy there, particularly in Jimmy’s troll mime. And Jonathan Banks really does have the most fantastic face, doesn’t he?
Read Stefan’s review of the previous episode, Uno, here.
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