May 19, 2018
Better Call Saul: No Exit (S2 E1 Recap)
Let’s begin with the locked door paradox: We’re back in Omaha, where Gene, the man who was Saul Goodman is closing up the Cinnabon he manages. He’s still hiding in plain sight. Between the balding head, the mustache, the glasses, and the visor covering most of his face, he’s someone you could see every day and never recognize. He says good-night and safe home to a couple of the girls, but he stays late to clean. It’s not like there’s anything or anyone waiting for him.
Like the bleak beginning of The Wizard of Oz, all the Nebraska scenes are filmed in black and white. There’s a melancholy country song on the soundtrack, something about time slipping away, and a shot of a clock that we can hear ticking. He takes some trash bags out to an enclosed dock. A door closes behind him locking him in. This is not a random event. When he threw the trash into the dumpster, the vibration caused the door to swing shut. There are no accidents in this universe. But there’s an option – an emergency exit. Only there’s a sign on the door. If he opens it, it will set off an alarm and the police will respond. He comes close to opening it anyway. Is he betting he can escape before the cops come? That it won’t come back to him? But then he decides it’s too big a risk. He can’t bring himself to do it. He is a man literally trapped by his past. (His entire thought process is ACTED for us without benefit of voice-over. Thank you, Bob Odenkirk!)
Gene waits almost three hours. Finally another worker comes along and lets him out. When he’s gone, we see the initials he’d scratched on the graffitied walls, “SG was here.”
The credits roll and we see Jimmy outside of court. He feels the pinkie ring he’s wearing – the one he inherited from Marco, his partner in crime from Cicero. He’ll be wearing it for years to come. When we first saw Jimmy back in season 1, episode one, he was rehearsing in a bathroom mirror before going in front of a judge. Here he’s not rehearsing, at least not out loud, but he seems to be trying to steel himself, to get into character. He goes inside, and Howard, who he now understands was never his enemy, is there to greet him and introduce him to Main, from Davis and Main, the firm helping HHM with the Sandpiper case that Jimmy brought to them. This is about the job Kim told him was waiting for him in the finale – partner track in the Santa Fe office. Howard is singing his praises. But Jimmy asks to steal Kim for a moment. He takes her aside and asks her a question. If he takes the job does that mean the two of them… He doesn’t finish the thought. He is for once without words. It takes her a moment to grasp what he’s asking. She tells him that one thing has nothing to do with the other. He goes back to the others, thanks Howard, shakes Mr. Main’s hand, turns down the offer, and walks out.
Last season in the final scene, we saw Jimmy drive past Mike’s booth, and then a few seconds later he came out again. Those few seconds were the two minutes it took him to park the car, go inside, and tell them no. We now see the final scene again. Jimmy asks Mike whether he dreamed they had $1.6 million dollars sitting in front of them. He tells Mike that he knows what stopped him from taking the money, and it’s never going to stop him again. Then he drives off humming the first bars of Smoke on the Water – the song that Marco always used to hum, as part of their con.
Even if we don’t understand exactly why he didn’t take a job that would have been both a nice fuck you to Chuck, as well as a declaration of independence, we do get the context. Discovering the depth of Chuck’s betrayal, seeing Chuck for who really was and wasn’t, led to Jimmy’s break-down at the bingo game. That led to his going back to Cicero, and another loss – Marco’s death. It’s been a year for us, but a day for him.
Those missing two minutes give us a little more to go on about whatever it is between him and Kim. “It” hasn’t happened yet, and Jimmy desperately wants it to. He returns to the nail salon, where he possibly burns a bridge, that he’ll apparently rebuild, as the salon was also featured on Breaking Bad. When Mrs. Nguyen tells him the cucumber water is for customers only, he gulps it directly from the spigot. Then he tears down the paper sign outside his office door.
But before we find out where he’s going, we return to another lost soul. Mike has his familiar pimento sandwich in his brown paper bag and is waiting in the garage. Dana the IT guy who steals sealed boxes of pills from the pharmaceutical company where he works and sells them to Nacho, pulls up in the world’s loudest Hummer. It’s yellow with red stripes and chrome wheels that are an epilepsy hazard. The license plate: PLAYUH. He even has matching high-tops, though nothing else in his wardrobe has changed,and his speech is still .littered with phrases like “easy-peasy” and “surry” for “sorry.” He’s a talking reference to Fargo, a movie also about greed and the consequences of straying off the path.
Mike tells him he won’t ride with him in that car because it lacks “restraint.” If we know Breaking Bad, we will sigh here because we know that Mike will wind up working for and admiring, Gus Fring, the prince of restraint.
Dana tells Mike he doesn’t need him. He ignores Mike’s warning not to go to the meet alone, and drives off to meet Nacho. Pride goeth before the fall. Nacho looks around to make sure Mike really isn’t there before making a snarky comment about his absence because Nacho is smart enough to know that Mike is a man with nothing to lose and they are the most dangerous kind. Nacho and Dana are meeting in front of the factory that some years later, Jesse and Walter will burn down.
Nacho, noting Dana’s new ride, has something in mind, but Dana is completely unaware of the danger he’s in. Nacho goes inside the car to check it out while Dana is outside counting the money. Will Nacho drive away? Will he drive away and kill Dana? He does neither, but he does take a look at the paperwork in the glove compartment.
Jimmy is in a floating lounge chair in the middle of a pool in a fancy resort. Kim shows up to rescue him from himself, but he tells her that this is the real him. Just then a waiter comes by and calls him Mr. Compton. That’s Jimmy’s true self alright. He’s a genuine fake. He can’t explain to her why after years of struggle and study, he’s quitting the law, something he’s good at. He tells her that the parts of it he likes, the selling and convincing, he doesn’t need to be a lawyer to do. He tells her he’s tried to be good for years, but where has it gotten him?
Kim points out that he was getting somewhere. He just turned down a great job. She asks if he’s going to walk the earth like Jules at the end of Pulp Fiction. It’s a pitch-perfect reference for two people who often talk to each other in film references. Meantime, there’s an asshole sitting at the bar, saying assaholic things into his mouthpiece. Jimmy wants to demonstrate what he’s talking about to Kim, and tells her to follow his lead. They manage to convince Ken, an obnoxious wealth manager, that they are Viktor and Giselle, a brother and sister of Boar descent, who recently inherited $1.4 million dollars from Uncle Humphrey, and they’re in need of some investment advice. By the end of the night, they’ve gone through a bottle of the world’s most expensive tequila, signed over their non-existent fortune to Ken, and left him with a ginormous bar bill.
As a hustle, it’s still glorified “beer money.” It’s not as though they got Ken to sign his real money over to them. But it’s enough to make Kim giddy, and once they’re out of the bar, back by the pool, she kisses Jimmy, and then we see them the next morning at her place.
When Jimmy says how great it would be if they could do what they did every night, she says firmly that they can’t. And while it’s not totally clear whether he meant the hustle, the sex, or both, her “no” seems to encompass all of the above. She’s getting ready to go to work, and he’s getting ready to go no place.
We switch back to Dana, who answers the door to a couple of police officers. His house has been broken into and his valuable collection of baseball cards has been stolen. Of course, the cops notice the Hummer, and the high tops. When asked if anything else was taken, he mentions cash – “a fair bit,” but when asked how much he changes the subject back to the cards. The cops notice the awkward transition, and other things too. Once he’s out of the room compiling a list of what’s missing, one of them shows the other how the area in front of the sofa has been cleared, as though someone moved it, so they move it and discover a hiding place behind a baseboard. They shine a flashlight in, but it doesn’t look like anything is there. They put the board back and have the couch in place before Dana is back in the room, none the wiser. He thinks he knows more than Mike, more than Nacho, and more than the cops. We know that his hubris will be punished. In the world of both Breaking Bad and BCS, Dana is a common type – an upstanding citizen with a straight job and no criminal history, who sees an opportunity and becomes greedy. They’re hungry ghosts who never get enough, and always get caught. They could be our neighbors. They could be us, and eventually they’ll be needing the help of someone who knows the ropes. As Jesse Pinkman will put it, they need a criminal attorney.
Speaking of whom….
Jimmy is back in the pool. He spots another potential mark, a “water buffalo” ready to be culled from the herd. He calls Kim and leaves a couple of messages, proposing she come over and join him. She doesn’t call back. Did he ever really expect her too? Probably, he did, and that emotional vulnerability is what we love about him, and what we know he’ll lose soon. Something clicks, and he calls another number, Davis and Main in Santa Fe.
We see him in another good suit, and again he’s feeling his ring, and maybe going over the lines in his head before he walks in to a tasteful building in the Pueblo-revival style.. Last season, just about every episode featured some kind of montage. Here we get a montage of handshakes, and introductions. It looks like stock footage of office meets and greets, and it looks like that’s exactly how it’s supposed to look.
Davis and Main is a generic welcoming and diverse workplace. It’s lawyer heaven. HHM may have been all glass, steal, and concrete, but here it’s adobe and wood, even if you still don’t seem to be able to open the windows. Jimmy gets a company car, his choice of art work, and his own assistant who’s eager to make him happy. He asks for a cocobollo desk, just because he can, and he’s going to get one.
When he’s left alone to contemplate his new digs, he goes over to the window. There’s a small sign taped over a switch, “ALWAYS leave on Do NOT turn off.” It’s the forbidden fruit. Jimmy can’t help himself. He removes the tape and turns the switch. Nothing happens and after a few seconds, he turns it back on and puts the tape back. Is this the first transgression? Will this small step somehow lead to his eventually becoming the guy too scared to go through the only available exit?
Last season, when the series began, we thought we knew what it would be — the story we didn’t see on Breaking Bad of how Jimmy became Saul – a man whose soul seemed to be “ironed out of him.” But here’s the thing, “we” the audience, the actors and the writers, have fallen hard for Jimmy McGill, adding a whole new level of tragi to the comic.
Could any of us bear to watch four more years of this if we were certain that Omaha was the end game? The Cinnibon is an awfully bleak final destination. We knew Walter White’s fate was sealed. Gilligan told us he wanted to take the character from Mr. Chips to Scarface, and Scarface always dies at the end. But let’s hope there’s more for Jimmy, that Omaha isn’t hell, but purgatory, a chance for him to burn off some of that bad karma, maybe even to confess his sins and be redeemed. I’m not talking about a marries-Kim-and-moves-to-the-burbs happily ever after ending, I’d settle for Jimmy as a jailhouse lawyer doing a substantial bid while performing good works in the form of helping the innocent, and other acts of contrition and kindness.I’d like to see him comfortable in his own skin, freer behind bars than he was on the run. I’d like to see him experience grace. It’s better than leaving him trapped, alone, and afraid in Nebraska.