May 11, 2018
Better Call Saul: Nothing comes from nothing
Damn. If you haven’t already seen the Better Call Saul premiere part one, then just go watch it. Do not read this spoilery recap until you are done, and then read it only to relive the experience after you’ve savored it. [Editor’s note: please read this story and click all the ad links, whether you’ve watched the show or not. – Rick]
Also, if you’ve never seen Breaking Bad, start with that. With bathroom breaks it should take about two and half days. Call in sick to work, and arrange for delivery. You don’t need to have watched Breaking Bad to “get” Saul, but it will certainly enhance your pleasure.
We open in glorious black and white—like Kansas in the Wizard of Oz, but we are not in Kansas, Toto. We are in Omaha in a Cinnibon, just where Saul said he might wind up if he was lucky enough to outrun the feds. Only he was going to be the manager, and it’s not certain he’s even reached that exalted status.
What is for sure is that this is a very different man than the one we last saw on Breaking Bad. He’s almost unrecognizable in his apron, uniform and visor, the comb-over gone too. He’s wearing out-of-date glasses and a loser mustache—much like the one Walter White sported in the first episodes of BB.
Like Walter, this man is terrified of everything—in particular, of a burly-looking patron. Is he a cop? DEA? A hit man?
Turns out it’s just a guy waiting for his girlfriend.
Saul or whoever he is now goes home to his dumpy little house, which is probably a rental, and mixes himself up a cheap booze cocktail while listening to the Home Shopping Club. “This is what you’re looking for if you’re a Renoir fan…”
He probably could’ve owned a Renoir once. We don’t need a voiceover to tell us that. It’s all in the visuals, and the sounds, including the snow outside—the original white noise.
In purgatory, no one can hear you scream.
He digs out a shoebox from a hiding place in a wall. Tons of cash? Nope, just some old photos and a videotape. He pops it into the VCR. We don’t know the exact year, but the events of Breaking Bad ended long after VCRs were outdated. That’s okay. This is a man who lives in the past, survives in the present, and doesn’t have a future. He sits back and watches a montage of his old commercials. This man, this frightened schlemiel who is no longer Saul Goodman, could sure use Saul now. Like the potential clients being wooed on the video, he’s been “intimidated,” told “it’s hopeless,” and “oppressed by the so-called forces of justice.”
The opening credits role, and we switch to color. The past is Oz. We’re back in Albuquerque.
Saul, who is not yet Saul, but Jimmy McGill, is in the men’s room, rehearsing his closing argument for a case. The judge is waiting, and the guard goes to get him. He talks about the charges against his young clients—”near honor students”—criminal trespass—a minor offense, never to be repeated. Then the prosecutor plays the videotape. The defendants were in a funeral home, and sweet Jesus. they were skull fucking a corpse.
His clients are convicted, and Jimmy, a public defender, gets $700 for his troubles. He drives a mostly yellow, early 1990s compact that spews fumes and doesn’t always start. When he tries to leave the parking lot using an old ticket, claiming he was validated for the entire day, the attendant—a tough old codger—isn’t having any of it. Who is the attendant? Only our favorite enforcer ever, Mike Ehrmantraut.
Jimmy meets a clean-cut couple in a diner, potential clients whom he’s trying to solicit, Betsy and Craig. Craig’s a county treasurer in a bit of jam owing to what he says is an “accounting error.” They aren’t even sure they need a lawyer, but he’s very convincing. They are about to sign a letter of engagement. Odenkirk proves here that he is an actor, and not just a stand-up comic who got very lucky. You can feel the desperation and the relief—a payday is coming. But then Betsy pulls it away. They need to “sleep on it.”
Jimmy even has to pick up the tab for their coffee. The guy cannot catch a break.
Not giving up, he’s ordering them flowers on the phone as he drives away. He’s arguing about his credit card when a body jumps over his hood and is tossed to the pavement. It’s a skateboarder, claiming a broken leg, and his brother has it on videotape. Jimmy plays along with the scam, asks them what they want to make it go away. He’s told $500. He kicks the guy who’s down and tells them to look at his car, “The only way it’s worth $500 is if there’s a $300 hooker sitting in it.” He wants them to pay for his broken windshield. They skate away.
Could this encounter be fate? Another pit-stop on Saul’s road to Damascus?
He stops by his office, which is in the back of an Asian nail salon—another BB shout-out. It’s a space so cramped and unpleasant they probably decided against putting the waxing table back there.
He has a phone with no messages and mail that’s mostly bills, but there’s also a check from the law firm of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill for $26,000, which he tears into many pieces. We watch him rehearse, build up the bravado, the persona which in a few years he will own completely—but presently it’s a suit he hasn’t quite grown into. He pays a visit to the fancy office where he seems to know everyone, and they mostly ignore him. He enters with a Star Wars reference, and then in the conference room, he opens with a line from Network, “You have meddled with the primordial forces of nature, Mr. Hamlin.” His opponents are neither impressed nor intimidated.
Jimmy is there representing his older brother, a partner of the firm, who is on an “extended sabbatical.” They claim that Chuck, the brother, is coming back, so they’re paying him a stipend. Jimmy says they know he never will. He wants to cash out his brother’s partnership to the tune of $17 million. He won’t take their stipends because he doesn’t want to give them “a paper trail.”
He keeps up the bluster, but leaves completely defeated, a small man kicking an ashbin by the elevator on his way out.
He goes to visit Chuck, and while we don’t know exactly what Chuck’s illness is, he is avoiding “electromagnetic fields” and demands that visitors are “grounded.” Chuck can still quote legal maxims in Latin, but it’s clear he isn’t going back to work, ever. But Jimmy can’t tell him that, and they’re out of money.
Jimmy tries to make the case for cashing out, but Chuck won’t listen. He not only thinks he’s returning to work; he doesn’t want to liquidate and cost others their jobs. He’s been taking Hamlin’s handouts—undermining Jimmy’s plan. And then come the kicker. To avoid confusion, and possible legal action, Chuck’s old firm is demanding Jimmy change the name of his own practice. Two McGills might be confusing. They’ll pay for new matchbooks.
Jimmy gets into his car and talks to his matchbook. “You want to dance, Howard? Let’s dance.” Again, we see a bit of the Saul we knew and loved.
He finds the skateboard brothers and starts to tell them a story about Slippin’ Jimmy, from Cicero, Illinois. Is this fact or fantasy? We’re never sure, but he claims he used to pull a similar grift to theirs, only a lot more successfully. And if they listen to him, he can get them a $2,000 payday. He takes them to Betsy and Craig’s house, shows them Betsy’s car, and tells them her routine. The plan is for the brothers to do their thing while she’s on her way to pick up her kid at school. Jimmy is not only going to fix it for her after she hits the skateboarder, but he’s going to convince her to hire him for her husband’s embezzlement charge.
So what goes wrong? The skateboarder goes over the hood of the car, crashes the windshield, and falls while on videotape—as per the plan—but the driver never leaves her car. She keeps going. The brothers follow, holding onto the bumpers of other cars on the road. They call Jimmy and tell him she’s headed into “Holiday Park.” The car pulls into a driveway, the skateboarders approach, but it’s not Betsy. It’s an elderly Hispanic lady who doesn’t speak English. She understands that they want “dinero.” We cut to Jimmy driving around “Holiday Park,” still rehearsing meeting up with Betsy. He spots the car and pulls over. He sees the broken windshield and knocks on the door of the house. No answer, and the blinds are closed. He says, “Open up. Officer of the court.” The door opens, and we see a tattooed arm holding a gun. Jimmy is ordered inside. The man with the gun looks like one tough hombre. Great cliffhanger!
I have to confess, for a moment I thought the man behind the door was our old, long-deceased friend Tuco Salamanca from Season One of Breaking Bad, but this is a different actor and a new character. Am I disappointed? It would have been awesome if it had been Tuco, but then again, we might still see him later in the season or the next, and a character whose fate is not preordained presents even more possibilities.
Apologies if this recap was strangely snark deficient, but we must all bow before genius. I can’t recall ever seeing a pilot episode of anything so well developed. Can’t wait for the second part tonight!