This review contains spoilers.
2.4 Gloves Off
There are a lot of things Better Call Saul deserves praise for, but one often overlooked element is just how well it understands the mechanics of a good prequel. Every time a story set before another story is released it always poses the question; what’s the point? When we know how this ends, why waste our time? It’s exactly this element that Better Call Saul has used to its advantage, and as if to underline this triumph, the show has produced an episode that basically illustrates exactly how it has done this in microcosm.
We start with a classic cold open. Mike limps into his house, looking weary and worse for wear. He deposits an envelope of money on his desk, then goes to the fridge, gets some frozen peas, places them on his face and sits down. It’s only when he removes the peas for a moment that we see the extent of the damage he has sustained. Immediately we know that Mike accepted and completed the job he was given at the end of the previous episode, but took one hell of a beating in the process. Whoever Nacho needed to disappear, Mike made it happen.
Now imagine if the episode had just continued from there, without flashing back to show the who or the how. It could almost work, right? The point had been made; Mike took the job and got the money. The main meat of last week’s cliffhanger has been resolved in two minutes. Except then the episode throws a spanner in the works; it takes us back and reveals that Nacho’s target is none other than Tuco Salamanca. And we know Tuco is still alive and dangerous by the time the events of Breaking Bad roll around. But we also know that Mike completes his job. So suddenly, we are on the hook, desperate to know just how he manages it, and a story in which the outcome seems unquestionable has become compelling.
It’s this kind of mastery of storytelling that makes Better Call Saul, like Breaking Bad before it, so good. Knowing how a story ends does not preclude it from being gripping. The way to make it work is by making point A and point B so directly contradictory to each other that we have to know how the character made the transition.
Imagine the Saul of Breaking Bad screwing up and getting his friend/maybe girlfriend into trouble at her work in the process. Would he immediately go to the brother he hates with every intention of throwing himself on his sword to save her, only to be stopped in his tracks when he has to make sure his damaged sibling is alright through the night? It’s a sequence that shows us that while Jimmy may be disillusioned with doing ‘the right thing’, he’s still Jimmy McGill and he still cares deeply for the people in his life. Chuck has betrayed, sabotaged and belittled him, and despite Jimmy’s care shows no sign of stopping. But Jimmy still sits up all night, gets his brother water and blankets and makes sure Chuck is okay before he lets loose his justifiable rage. This guy is the same as the slimy lawyer who casually suggests ‘sending people to Belize’ when they become a problem in Breaking Bad. What could possibly break him so horribly?
The clues are certainly present, and the central showdown between Jimmy and Chuck, a confrontation I was sure was still a good while away, brought the themes of the series front and centre in an absolute barnstormer of a scene. Bolstered by some amazing performances from both Bob Oedenkirk and Michael McKean, it’s a wrenching, nail-biting moment where the differences between the two brothers are clearly delineated. Jimmy tells Chuck that he will quit Davis and Main and walk away from law altogether; provided Chuck helps Kim regain her rightful position at HHM. The temptation for Chuck is undeniable; as Jimmy says, one sentence would give him everything he wants. But the problem is that it would also give Jimmy what he wants too; definitive proof that Chuck is just as bad as him.
For all his high and mighty posturing, we know and Jimmy knows that Chuck is a spiteful, bitter, jealous man and even if Jimmy loses everything he will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that the brother he aspired to impress really is on his level. Chuck tells Jimmy that life isn’t “one big game of Make A Deal”, and Jimmy replies with blunt certainty; “yes it is”. Jimmy may lack Chuck’s apparent respectability, but Jimmy is also honest. To him the ends do justify the means, and while Chuck tries to tell him how wrong that is, the reality is more complicated. Simply put, neither of them are right or wrong. Jimmy’s methods may get results but they can prove dangerous in the long term, and his ultimate transformation into a man without morals will eventually lead to him sitting in a room with the blinds drawn watching his old ads to recall his glory days. Chuck sticks to the rules, but that has fostered in him an angry jealousy towards his brother, who can make things happen swiftly by eschewing the ‘right way’ of doing things. What is so fascinating about this conflict is that both brothers want something the other has, and yet their fundamental wiring will always stop them from getting it and keep them pitted against each other with no chance of a peaceful accord.
This episode didn’t do a huge amount to move Jimmy’s plot forward; rather it starkly presented the fallout of last week’s blunder. Jimmy may have managed to escape with his job intact, but there was no squirming out of the trouble he was in. None of his arguments held water in the face of Cliff Main’s fury. Perhaps his mistake was assuming that his softly spoken, patient, guitar playing boss was anything other than a shrewd lawyer with a reputation to uphold. Jimmy gambled with his ability to talk his way out of this and he definitively lost, in the process hurting Kim more than he hurt himself. Jimmy underestimated his new job, and the extent to which he does not fit in was unclear until now. When Jimmy offered to resign to Chuck, did he actually want his brother to hand him an excuse to walk away? Possibly. At this moment I would wager that Kim’s opinion of him is the only thing keeping him at Davis and Main, and that may not be a factor for much longer.
Meanwhile, Mike’s material is leaving me conflicted. On the one hand I admire how brilliantly it is written and structured. On the other hand, as I said last week, it still feels separate from the main thrust of the series and at times like it belongs to another show altogether. This week alone we had guest appearances from three Breaking Bad alumni, from Tuco to the more surprising arrivals of Krazy-8 and Jim Beaver’s laconic arms dealer. Better Call Saul has reached an interesting point where, while these cameos are fun, they’re a little superficial and don’t do much more than elicit a response of ‘hey, it’s that guy!’ Tuco works because his fate being a forgone conclusion is a key part of how Mike’s story played out. The others actually run the risk of being a little distracting.
That said, however, Mike’s plot this week was possibly the most satisfying we’ve yet seen (barring, of course, his heartbreaking backstory in Five-O), and it was worth it all for the punch-the-air moment when he grins at Tuco through bloodied teeth and calmly asks ‘is that all you’ve got?’ Is it blatant fan service? Absolutely. Did I still cheer at my TV? You bet.
It also effectively removed Tuco from the show, at least for now. I actually like this move because it makes room for new villains who aren’t constrained by the development we’ve already seen in Breaking Bad. Nacho’s every action is no longer overshadowed by his role as Tuco’s offsider and, in keeping with the masterful use of the prequel format, we now have the question of exactly what changes Mike from a man who will go to great lengths not to kill to the cold hitman we see in Breaking Bad. I have a feeling that the surely inevitable arrival of Gustavo Fring will answer a few big questions for us.
Read Gabriel’s review of the previous episode, Amarillo, here.