Better Call Saul episode 5 review: Alpine Shepherd Boy

The performances might be top notch, but is Better Call Saul's plot wheel-spinning rather than going anywhere?

This review contains spoilers.

1.5 Alpine Shepherd Boy

Bit of a weird one, this.

While by no means a bad episode, Alpine Shepherd Boy marks the first time since the premiere that I’ve become preoccupied with the question of whether Better Call Saul is justifying its own existence. All of the performances are typically on point, particularly Bob Odenkirk’s, and many individual scenes are very good, but the whole thing ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts. The show feels as though it’s spinning its wheels, and when you’re halfway through a run of only ten episodes, that’s a problem.

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The two main issues I have with the episode are that it’s far too concerned with reiterating things that we already know, and that certain scenes go on just a little too long. At the close of the episode – and I have to say that it does improve in its last few scenes, a point to which I’ll return – I found myself wondering exactly what we’d learned, and how things had progressed. Are we better informed now than we were beforehand? Mostly, unfortunately, I don’t think we are.

One thing we learn, seemingly definitively, is that Chuck’s condition is mental, rather than physical – a symptom of some other trauma, as detailed in the lengthy hospital scenes. While I have wavered slightly over this in previous episodes, it’s not exactly a major revelation. So what other purposes do the scenes in the hospital serve? We see that Jimmy is committed (no pun intended) to his brother, concerned for his welfare and defensive on his behalf, something we already knew (and in the later scene back at Chuck’s house, the show re-iterates Jimmy’s desire to do right by him, to make him proud, to go steady, which arguably we didn’t need pointing out again). We also see that Jimmy really dislikes Howard, something that, again, didn’t necessarily need reiterating – their interactions here don’t shine much of a light on either of their characters, or advance their dynamic.

So I have to conclude that the hospital scenes don’t serve enough of a narrative purpose to really justify how long they go on for – and, additionally, how weirdly overwrought they feel. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what didn’t work for me. The performances, as I’ve said, are all fine. It just felt a little like a scene from a different series, or some sort of made-for-TV movie, had wandered into proceedings – people standing in hospital corridors, earnestly exchanging lines like “Is that helping or enabling”, “You have the power to help your brother”, “Ignoring this won’t make it go away” and “All I know is… he needs help” just didn’t feel like Better Call Saul. They sat uncomfortably, and marked one of the few instances in the show where a creative choice has felt tonally jarring.

A couple of other moments that go on too long, adding to the feel of a wheel-spinning episode: the length shot of the alpine shepherd boy lady coming down the stairs on her stairlift, and the later scenes of the OAPs eating Jimmy’s special branded jelly. The first moment is beautifully framed, with a lovely set, and it is very funny, but it’s a comedic setup we’ve seen done before in other series and doesn’t justify its own length, while the jelly scene overstays its welcome in the same way that a few of the musical montages in Better Call Saul have – the music choices are always spot-on, and they’re technically highly proficient, as you’d expect, but they linger just a little too long, and end up straying into the realms of self-indulgence. It’s very funny that Jimmy opts to advertise in the bottom of jelly tubs, but did we really need quite so long a shot of the trolley being pushed, and so many shots of old people tucking into jelly? That’s not a slight against old people, by the way. I did love the fact that Jimmy looks to Matlock for inspiration for his OAP-snaring suit, though, ‘cos if we’ve learned anything from The Simpsons (who am I kidding, we learned everything we know from The Simpsons) it’s that pensioners love a bit of Matlock.

So. Several paragraphs of criticism. I must have hated the episode, right? Well, no. As I said, it’s by no means bad, just misjudged in places. Bob Odenkirk continues to knock it out of the park – witness his cavalcade of facial expressions during the scene with crackpot would-be secessionist Ricky, a hilarious series of tics culminating in his brilliant, wordless response to the question of whether he wants his money in cash. He’s also great when dealing with the various old people – the “elder law” plot thread is certainly a new development, I feel duty-bound to point that out, and I am interested to see where it goes – as he subtly changes his manner, playing up the flattery and the flirtatiousness, humouring their whims. You can see why people would warm to him, particularly elderly folk who feel deprived of companionship.

The shift to Mike’s perspective at the end is also very effective, and welcome, setting up an interesting new mystery – what exactly has followed him from Philly? Why did he leave? Presumably that’s his daughter, the mother of the beloved granddaughter we remember from Breaking Bad, that he’s watching. What exactly is going on there? I’m intrigued and I want to know more – but in a way, this aspect of the episode also highlights an issue. Previously I’ve found that dealing out Mike’s scenes in small chunks has been a good choice, but spending longer with him here just serves to remind us of what a fantastic character he is, and how wonderful Jonathan Banks’ world-weary performance is, and I’m afraid that if you asked me who I wanted to spend more time with, Chuck or Mike, I’d have to say Mike. That’s not to say that I don’t like the character of Chuck, because I like him very much, and I think Michael McKean’s performance is excellent. But I’m watching a spin-off from Breaking Bad, and Mike was one of its best characters. Whatchyagonnado?

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So to return to my point about the show justifying its own existence. Up until this episode, I’d been fairly convinced that it was. A black comedy drama about the decidedly un-glamorous side of humanity, made and played very well by all concerned – I’m more than happy to watch that. But the repetitious, wheel-spinning nature of this episode made me wonder if it’s really a story that demands to be told. And while intellectually I appreciate why Better Call Saul is not attempting to replicate the operatic intensity of its parent show, I cannot deny my gut feeling that I want more from a series that shares so much DNA, in both stylistic and character terms, with such a televisual  masterpiece. Perhaps it’s unfair for me to impose such desires on a series whose creators have expressly laid out what they are and aren’t planning on doing with it. But the heart wants what the heart wants.

On the other hand, sex toilet. Does this gag alone justify the existence, not just of Alpine Shepherd Boy, but of the entire series, including the five episodes we’ve yet to see. 

Answers on a postcard!

Read Stefan’s review of the previous episode, Hero, here.

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