Review: 'Better Call Saul' keeps weaving in and out of 'Breaking Bad' territory
A review of tonight's Better Call Saul coming up just as soon as I do the Carol Burnett thing with my ear...
"You don't save me. I save me." -Kim
What an oddly structured show Better Call Saul can be at times.
Throughout the series, Jimmy and Mike rarely interact — or do it briefly, as happens here when Jimmy expresses concern about Mike's battered face — and are moving through stories with completely different tones, usually featuring different characters (though both of them have run afoul of Tuco and Nacho at some point), and at times feeling like different genres. Their lives and stories are destined to become far more entwined, but at the moment, Jimmy's in a legal dramedy and Mike's not only in a hard-boiled crime show, but one that for now has much more of a direction connection to Breaking Bad. Saul is far from the first show to split its main characters up like this — that's basically all Game of Thrones ever does — but it stands out more with a cast this small, where most of the audience is already so attached to these two guys, and where the tone and reference points can switch so abruptly. When we get a Mike spotlight episode like "Five-O," or particularly one like last week's that featured both Tuco and Krazy-8, that only seems to increase the clamoring for Saul to feature more Breaking Bad characters, if not to just become full-time Breaking Bad brand service(*), but then we go a long stretch where the focus is on Jimmy's legal career, and nobody seems in much of a hurry to have Gus or Don Eladio show up.
(*) Last week on Twitter, someone asked me if the show might reach a point where it's detailing what Saul and Mike were doing in the Heisenberg years when they weren't around Walt and/or Jesse. I can see an episode, or maybe two, about that, but so much of what both men were up to during that time was driven by their relationship with Walt that it would rob both characters of their agency and turn them into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You can do a one-shot story about that; an ongoing series of stories is a lot harder.
That unusual structure is on particular display in an episode like "Rebecca." It starts out with a lengthy flashback to Chuck's days as a healthy, prosperous, and married attorney reluctantly helping Jimmy try to go straight. Then for the bulk of the hour, it's a Kim spotlight episode — and a great one, at that, rewarding every bit of faith the creative team has placed in Rhea Seehorn — with some glorified (but funny) cameos by Jimmy and his new babysitter Erin (played by Jessie Ennis), and a great scene that ties together the Chuck and Kim stories by bringing Jimmy's two loved ones together for a story about how often our hero unwittingly lets down the people who care for him.
And then for the last five minutes, we are suddenly back in Mike/Breaking Bad-prequel mode with the surprise appearance of Tio Hector Salamanca — older and slower than he was in those Breaking Bad season 3 flashbacks, but before the debilitating stroke that left him unable to do anything but DING! — as he tries to sweet talk Mike into helping to reduce Tuco's prison sentence.
Individually, each of these pieces of "Rebecca" were marvelous. Seeing Mark Margolis play Tio pretending to be a harmless old man, for instance, was a delight, given what he's previously done with the character. But there can definitely be a feeling of whiplash associated with watching Saul, sometimes from one episode to another, and sometimes from one act to the next. At times, it reminds me less of Breaking Bad or any other recent cable dramas (save maybe Thrones) than Oz, where episodes were structured so that each of that week's storylines ran in its entirety before the hour moved onto the next one. "Rebecca" wasn't quite that extreme — again, Chuck looped back in by the end, and we did get an earlier glimpse of Mike (including him lying to Stacey about a car accident to explain the bruises that are keeping him from Kaylee for a bit) — but it does serve as a reminder that even midway through season 2, and in a universe they already know so well, Gilligan, Gould, and company are still figuring some things out about what kind of show Saul is and how it should work.
But let's talk some more about Kim. As Jimmy's motivations for going straight have shifted from trying to impress his brother to trying to make things work with Kim by any means necessary, Saul has put in its due diligence in establishing her as someone worthy of that effort. In the grand scheme of this fictional universe, being banished to doc review purgatory with much younger lawyers isn't a horrible punishment. But in the scheme of Kim Wexler's life — a life that, for now at least, has not come into contact with any members of the Salamanca family, has not seen a decapitated man's head atop an exploding tortoise, and only sees box cutters in their intended use — this stinks. She's worked hard from humble beginnings to get where she is, and her allegiance to Jimmy(**) has seemingly taken all of that away.
(**) Some of you wondered last week why she didn't merely tell Chuck and Howard that Jimmy had lied to her about getting approval. Leaving aside the fact that Kim cares for Jimmy and doesn't want to hurt him, even in a moment when he's screwed her over professionally, it's a situation where the truth would probably have been just as damaging. In the version she lets the partners believe, she made an error in judgment in not warning them and the Davis and Main partners. In the real version, she comes across as a naive dupe of a former con man whom everyone is rightly angry with at the moment. A no-win scenario.
But rather than play the victim, or take Jimmy up on his ridiculous and self-serving offer to quit Davis and Main, Kim just puts her head down, serves her punishment, and works like mad to bring in a client impressive enough to liberate her. (This is the key difference between her and Jimmy: she accepts her punishment quietly and works within the system to improve her situation; he just keeps hustling, even after she's dared him to try following the rules for a single day.)
There are long stretches of "Rebecca" that just feature Kim pacing and talking on the phone, and it's a credit to both Seehorn (expertly shifting back and forth between charm and desperation as Kim got on and off the phone) and Saul editor Kelley Dixon that those were as compelling as they were. The time put in — both in terms of minutes of the episode and in terms of how many lunch hours she seemed to devote to this quest — made her victory dance in the parking garage feel extra sweet. And, in turn, it made that moment when Howard casually announces that she's still trapped in doc review even more painful. (Just watch the way Seehorn's jaw moves ever so slightly as Kim absorbs this latest hit; it's brutal.)
That Howard, not Chuck, is the one responsible for her punishment is another reminder that Jimmy often argues for things he knows nothing about, and the latest reversal in sympathies between the two main HHM partners. Remember, for most of the first season, Howard seemed the villain and Chuck the good guy, until we found out that it was Chuck preventing Jimmy from becoming a lawyer for the firm. But Howard didn't suddenly become a saint from this news — most of what Patrick Fabian was given to play last season came about before the writers decided on the Chuck/Howard flip — and it's good to get a reminder that sometimes he really is every bit the smug SOB that Jimmy used to accuse him of being.
This all leads to that stunning Kim/Chuck scene, which seems to start off as the latest of her humiliations — now she's the coffee girl? — until he invites her into his office to chat about their mutual acquaintance. Again, the series has really elegantly switched our sympathies back and forth between the four main legal players, and it continues to do so even within the span of this episode. In the opening flashback, Chuck couldn't be more contemptuous of Jimmy — or more annoyed that his wife enjoys all of Jimmy's hacky lawyer jokes — and we seem headed for another round of Snob vs. Slob. But then comes Chuck's story about their father, wonderfully delivered by Michael McKean, which casts a whole new light on the relationship. It's not just that Chuck has spent half his life getting Slippin' Jimmy out of trouble, but that Jimmy's insatiable thirst for the hustle couldn't even be controlled when their father's business was at stake. If I were the one in Chuck's shoes, I imagine I would say something far less kind about my brother than the words he leaves Kim to consider:
"My brother is not a bad person. He has a good heart. It's just... he can't help himself. And everyone's left picking up the pieces."
Yet here's the thing about this weird, marvelous show: I will get incredibly absorbed in the world of Jimmy and Kim and Chuck, and write long essays about how Saul shouldn't be in a rush to get to the Breaking Bad versions of these characters...
...and then the second Tio Hector walks through the diner door, I'm giddy and all I want is to spend a long stretch in that part of Albuquerque. In that moment, I understand completely why some of you wish Mike were the main character, or just keep asking for more appearances from Breaking Bad vets.
For now, at least, Saul has figured out how to have the best of both worlds with this Jimmy/Mike split, even if the transitions can occasionally feel jarring. And that tension between the two halves of the show — and between groups of fans who prefer one half more than the other — is emblematic of what Jimmy is going through, even in an episode in which he barely appears. Eventually, Jimmy is going to leave Kim and Chuck's world and go full-time into Mike and Walt's. We know it's where he's headed, and Saul has done an excellent job explaining why he's probably going to be much happier there (at least until he has to become Cinabbon Gene as a result). But if the series can find a way to give us both worlds, and both Jimmys, for a while longer, that'll be just fine, thanks.
Some other thoughts:
* Though the episode is named after Chuck's wife (presumably now ex-wife) Rebecca, she only appears in the opening scene, in the form of actress Ann Cusack. Much to speculate on here: Did the marriage split as a result of Chuck's "condition"? Or did Rebecca's absence trigger it?
* In case you missed it, the Internet proved my prediction right about a Tuco/Larry David musical mash-up, and now I assume there will be many, many gifs of the court clerk glancing forlornly at the Beanie Baby that Erin (or, as Jimmy dubs her, "Goddamn pixie ninja!") so cruelly withheld from her.
* It's funny: even though we should be conditioned by now to the idea that the Jimmy half of the show is going to be pretty light on any crime, when the HHM security guard started turning off the building's lights and opened the front door to a car, for the briefest moment I thought, "Is he the inside man for some weird legal documents heist?"
* Jimmy Loves Movies: After getting a look at Mike's black-and-blue mug, Jimmy hums the theme from Rocky on his way into the parking lot.
* That's "A Mi Minera" by Gipsy Kings playing over the second montage of Kim working the phones to work her way out of purgatory.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com