May 11, 2018
Better Call Saul RECAP: Bizsnatch (S1:E2)
So that was Tuco what grabbed Jimmy at the end of Sunday night’s premiere! When the Internet failed to explode, and I could find no corroboration or IMDB credit, I thought my eyes must have deceived me. But I was right before I was wrong. And no, I don’t think all Mexican-American actors look alike—but I did once temp at the Swedish desk of an international bank, and when you’ve seen one blond, blue-eyed, 20-something, 6 foot 2, 185-pound banker in a suit and a power tie, you’ve seen them all.
And like Jimmy, I may have a bad case of face blindness.
Tuco’s cameo makes last night’s episode even better than I thought—or downright brilliant and just about perfect—unless you’ve never watched Breaking Bad, in which case… wait a second, it’s still great.
Why be linear? Does it matter as a viewer if you’re meeting Tuco for the first time five years in the future or now? If you’ve never seen Breaking Bad and get to know Jimmy before he becomes Saul, will that make watching his first appearance on the eponymous episode of Breaking Bad any less spectacular?
This is the beauty of a circular narrative. I got it wrong twice about Sunday’s episode. Yes, that was Tuco, and no, you don’t need to spend the next two and a half days catching up on Breaking Bad, which will be just as good if you watch it five years from now after the full run of Better Call Saul or next winter when you’re home with the flu.
In fact, if you are one of the few who didn’t “get” Breaking Bad, then Better Call Saul might be your way in.
This isn’t a character dependent “spin-off” where a popular supporting player is taken away from the context in which we met him. It’s not Mork & Mindy where the alien who lands in the 1950s winds up in the 1980s, or Good Times where Florida, the maid on Maude who lived in the Bronx, is suddenly stuck in a Chicago housing project, married to the same man, only now he’s been demoted from firefighter to marginally employed laborer with a different first name. (Did the Evans family go into witness protection?) Nor is it AfterMASH—a blatant attempt to cash in on our love for a cancelled show so horrendous that Keiko O’Brien will someday visit the past to erase it from the timeline.
This is something new to television. It’s a world that Vince Gilligan has created, in a place called Albuquerque and its environs—which, like Raymond Chandler’s LA or Hubert Selby Jr’s Brooklyn, bears a resemblance to a place we know, but only exists in a parallel universe. Within that world, the number of stories that can be told are infinite, and often they will circle in on each other, so it doesn’t matter with whom you start or in what year. It’s simplistic to call it a “prequel.” Time is being manipulated in a way rarely seen on the small screen—or even in movies, although Pulp Fiction pulled it off.
Better Call Saul begins at a time we might call “the present.” Saul Goodman has become “Gene,” who works at a Cinnabon in Omaha. But then Gene revisits the past—his past and how he went from being Jimmy to becoming Saul. That’s the narrative for now—the rise and fall of Saul Goodman. But might we jump at some point back into “the present” (Gene’s present) and from there move forward into the future?
Sure. Why the hell not?
Speaking of time, Monday night’s episode begins a few minutes before the last one ended. We open on an extreme close up of a red pepper being chopped up by Tuco in his grandmother’s kitchen. We hear the word “Mijo”—a Spanish contraction for “my son” but more a term of endearment like “sonny” or “sweetie.” Abuelita enters the house, followed by the two ginger brothers.
What follows is from Tuco’s perspective. Suddenly, these two white boys are in his house talking about getting the police, and Abuelita is upset. Tuco tries to remain calm. Maybe the idiots are just idiots. Maybe they’re fooled by Tuco’s apron. One of them says, “The crazy old bizsnatch ran over my brother.”
There’s a look in Tuco’s eyes, which translates as, “You two pendejos are SO dead.” The brothers completely miss it, and soon he’s sending Abuelita upstairs, instructing her to turn the television up so she can hear her stories. Then he beats them with her metal cane.
By the time Jimmy knocks, Tuco is cleaning up a blood-stained carpet. The knuckleheads are nowhere to be seen, and some friends are on the way to help with whatever comes next. Jimmy says, “Open up. I’m an officer of the court,” and Tuco—armed and very dangerous—pulls him inside.
The tale Jimmy spins is based on the truth, but a lot is left out. He’s a lawyer. The gingers are clients—knuckleheads, who called him but didn’t tell him much. He’s pleading their case already—if they are still alive. He knows they were in the wrong, and Tuco was certainly justified in his anger. Tuco seems to buy this and takes him to the garage where the boys are bound and gagged but still alive. He even gives Saul a knife to cut the rope.
Is it going to be that easy? Of course not.
As soon as the gag comes off, they’re telling Tuco it was Jimmy who set the whole thing up for money and to “punk” his grandmother.
Next thing, we are out in that beautiful, vast New Mexico desert. Jimmy and the boys are bound and gagged. There’s a van, and Tuco has three associates with him. Tuco thinks there’s some kind of police involvement. This is about his “business.” Jimmy opens with the truth, but when that doesn’t work, he pretends to be an FBI agent. A Hail Mary pass, but it’s all he’s got.
Nacho, the smarter associate, sees through the lie and convinces Tuco that a disappeared lawyer will be missed and that’s trouble—also Jimmy wasn’t the one who insulted his grandmother.
Tuco is about to let Jimmy go, but he’s definitely going to kill the knuckleheads. In fact, he wants to skin them like that pepper he was working on. And that’s when we get a glimpse of Jimmy being at least a little bit of a hero, or not a total psychopath, or maybe just someone who needs desperately to win. He pleads the boys’ case—appealing to Tuco as a “just man” and gets a death penalty reduced to “six months probation,” that is, a broken leg for each of them.
But do the brats appreciate his efforts? Nope. When he drops the boys off at the hospital, they tell him he’s a terrible lawyer.
Next he’s trying to drink away his troubles and make time with a lady’s cleavage. We don’t hear the dialogue, but we know more or less what he’s saying while we listen to music. It seems to be going okay, until we hear the sound of a breadstick snapping—and it’s just like the leg-breaking sound. Suddenly, the pretty lady’s red lips and red nails and red drink are all callbacks to blood and viscera. Breaking Bad got a lot of acclaim for the visuals; Better Call Saul is just as meticulous with the use of color and perspectives, but they’ve added a whole new layer of sound—whether it’s the muffled noises Abuelita can’t quite ignore even with the volume up, or the metallic clink of a wheelchair rolling on concrete, or those damn breadsticks.
After vomiting in the restroom, Jimmy winds up at his brother’s. Chuck is upset because Jimmy didn’t “ground” himself and entered the house with his cell phone. Even though Chuck throws the cell phone outside—using wooden tongs to grab it—he’s still covering himself in a “space blanket” when Jimmy wakes up the next morning.
It’s not a sequence with a whole lot of action, but Jimmy’s insistence his brother take off the blanket and Chuck’s resistance tells us tons about them. We see how much Jimmy wants to prove something to Chuck—that he’s a good man and a good lawyer, that he’s not “backsliding” into the “Slippin’ Jimmy” he once was. And we get it with few words. The spare dialogue in the wrong actors’ hands could have come across like an acting exercise, but Michael McKean and Bob Odenkirk are so good that it plays as both poetic and real.
Next we see a montage of Jimmy trying to make some money as a public defender, taking case after ridiculous case. Each sequence starts with him rehearsing in the men’s room, saying out loud in the mirror, “It’s show time,” another of his film references. This world is a stage. A cup of coffee from the vending machine before he goes to meet his jailed clients is both a ritual and a prop. No matter what deals he gets in court, every day ends with the same argument over his stickers with Mike, the grizzled parking lot attendant. The movie he’s really living in is Groundhog Day. He’s doomed to repeat the same scenario every day until he gets it right—and it feels like he’ll never get it right.
Back in his office at the back of the nail salon, he checks his phone messages. There are none. Another scene played without words where we see that all his public defender work still hasn’t gotten him a paying client, and it’s killing him. But then there’s a knock on the door.
It turns out to be, Tuco’s smarter, cooler associate, Nacho. Like Jimmy, Nacho is a listener. He heard what Jimmy said about the Kettlemans and the one and half million dollars they stole. Nacho likes stealing from thieves because they don’t have any “recourse.” He wants Jimmy’s help, and he’ll cut him in for a 10% finder’s fee—a hundred large. Jimmy says no, insisting he’s a criminal lawyer and not a criminal lawyer, but Nacho knows him and leaves his number on a matchbook, “For when you figure out you’re in the game.”
Jimmy tells him, “I’m not in the game. I promise.” He watches Nacho go out the door. We all know promises were made to be broken.