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Month: February, 2015

Better Call Saul: “Nacho”

 

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Bob Odenkirk on “Better Call Saul.” Ursula Coyote/AMC

 

“I’m a lousy brother and a big screw up – its about time I started to make us both proud.”

Sooner rather than later, I hope that Vince Gilligan and his writers feel comfortable enough to take a hearty stab at the case-of-the-week trope for Better Call Saul. With some of TV’s most noteworthy episodes framed within this format, the killer combo of Albuquerque, Jimmy’s whippersnapper tendencies and his bizarrely haphazard legal practice hold too much potential to be left sitting on the counter. Standalone episodes like “College” and “Pine Barrens” in The Sopranos, “Fly” in Breaking Bad, and “The Constant” in LOST are all exceptional examples throughout television history, each managing to drum up a rhythm of tension and emotion that escalates to peak levels whilst being (mostly) constrained to a specific location.

While the structure of “Nacho” doesn’t come close enough to merit this comparison, it is nonetheless a solid indicator of what could be the case if the writers were to attempt such a episode in the near future. This is because, in spite of all the continuity in “Nacho”, the self-contained nature of Jimmy’s case in this episode, from its introduction to its denouncement, works to an exceptional degree within its storytelling.

“Nacho” begins at around the 2 AM mark in the Day Spa & Nail Salon where an insomniac Jimmy McGill dials his cigarette splitting companion, Hamlin Hamlin and McGill associate, Kim Wexler. With his bothered conscience keeping him up, Jimmy tries shooting the shit with Kim, sans the traditional sexy talk, and eventually wiggles out of her a confirmation that she is now the second hand legal representative to the everlastingly dork-like Kettlemans.

In this scene, audiences can begin to sense the pattern that links Jimmy’s actions to his haphazard conflicts – it is his willingness to try to do right by his legal and moral quandaries that inadvertently adds to the flow of lawlessness that tries to swallow him whole. Before Jimmy finishes up his chat with Kim, he literally cannot help himself as his conscience hijacks his vocal stick shift when he lightly hints at the Kettlemans’ present danger (“Probably a target, somebody might get some bad bad ideas!”). But since a barely awake Kim can’t seem to compute Jimmy’s gentle suggestions, he then self-triggers these dominos to fall, all to his unintended detriment.

Once Jimmy self-convincingly drives out to a lone phone-booth with a makeshift voice enhancer, made of a cardboard tube and rubber bands, he dials the Kettleman’s home number. After repeated attempts with their obnoxiously kids-show-like voice machine, the Kettlemans finally pick up. However, since Jimmy’s modified voice gag doesn’t seem to translate well over the pay phone, Jimmy, in his own voice, is forced to yell, “Kettlemans! You’re in danger! They’re coming for your money! Bye!” And with that impeccable sense of television timing, Jimmy’s warning summons the couple to peek outside their sidelight window, spotting a mysterious van with the episode’s titular character casing their cul-de-sac.

The very next day, Jimmy’s $700-a-neck courtroom grind is cut short by a follow-up call from Kim, who alerts him that the Kettleman’s have, as he would put it, poofed. Jimmy books it out of the courtroom, escaping from Mike’s clutches by hijacking the gate control button to secure his freedom. After a brisk exchange with Kim at the ransacked Kettleman residence, Jimmy cozies up with another secluded phone booth, desperately trying to establish contact with his prime suspect number one, Nacho Vargas, and in the process, leaving increasingly damning voice messages, one after the other.

Eventually it all catches up to Jimmy in one fell swoop, with a quickly dispatched sting operation led by two detectives, they round up the marooned lawyer and relay him back to the already captive Nacho. In an interrogation room, the two begin to jaw off at one another as Jimmy trades barbs with his defendant about the lose-lose position (“18 years”) he has put them in and, without a beat, Nacho menacingly prattles right back, accusing Saul of pulling the ol’ bait-and-switch on him with the Kettleman gig (“You miserable piece of shit, you set me up”). But after the heated quips are put aside, Jimmy and Nacho begin to sift through the fiction to get at the truth. Nacho insistently maintains his innocence, stating that he was only there to sniff out the place and has never crossed into the premises, thereby convincing Jimmy of the startling fact that for the first time in his career; his defendant may actually be innocent.

This assumption is then woven into theory when Saul also “cases” the Kettleman’s joint with Kim Wexler and the two detectives. He shrewdly notices that the daughter’s favorite doll, frequented in the bedroom pictures, is missing. With a very desperate looking line drawn from Point A to Point B, Jimmy conjectures that what happened here was a self-appointed kidnapping. The gears begin to whirr until the two officers jam a pipe wrench into it when they rattle off a list of contradictions; all vehicles are still parked in the garage, there is no record of car service to and from the house, and the doll may have been taken to shush the then crying daughter.

The best part of watching these isolated, intensifying incidents unfold is in observing how Gilligan and his writers are able to turn the head of these conflicts with the pre-mediated flick of their wrists. In “Nacho”, that turn appears by the way of Mike’s character, who literally comes to wrist-breaking grips with Jimmy after his earlier display of rushed disregard. Mike understands the order in his universe and therefore carries the expectation that others who cross into his world obey those rules as well. However, Jimmy’s presence is the glitch in Mike’s matrix, an unwelcome entity that constantly tests just how far he can force things out of Mike’s control. Therefore when Jimmy pointedly pushes back on Mike’s insistence that he go park elsewhere, Mike physically demonstrates on Jimmy that enough is enough.

Coincidentally, when the same two detectives push for Mike to box Jimmy into a corner by pressing charges for initiated physical assault, he changes his mind. For Mike, the lesson has already been taught, and there isn’t much else to be gained by letting the issue drag on. It’s that same sense of utility which coaxes Mike to drop his two cents on Jimmy’s Kettleman dilemma when he flags him down in a stairwell. There, Mike wistfully reminisces about his cop gig in Philly when a bookie skipped town with six million on the Super Bowl and was found in an abandoned house just two doors down from his place. “Nobody wants to leave home” Mike judiciously preaches. And with that newfound wisdom, Jimmy heads for the desert hills, hovering above and beyond the Kettleman’s backyard.

And finally, with the tunes of the Kettleman Family Sing-A-Long echoing through the cool desert air and into Jimmy’s phone so Kim can confirm, his long protested aim finally proves to be true. It also appears that Kim’s pinch-hitting days at Hamlin Hamlin and McGill are all but over when a ruptured duffle bag with 1.5 million in cash splashes across the Kettleman’s tent, instantly boosting this case into an all-hands-on-deck type of ordeal.

Three episodes into this series and there already appears to be a viciously paced ebb and flow to Jimmy’s moral definition. As various external and internal forces have attempted to pull Jimmy down and apart, his shoestring principles and virtues have somehow managed to also tighten alongside that malevolent tug. While there seems to be an improvisational stride in the way Jimmy resolves these “cases” for his mostly unworthy, dirtbag clients, it is critical that audiences recognize the why in these cases rather than the how.

Most importantly, “Nacho’s” partially structured case of the week offers a quick but unobstructed glimpse into the present state of Jimmy’s soul. It would then seem narrow-minded to view these types of stories as another detour from Jimmy’s evolution into Saul. This is because Better Call Saul was not written as another depiction of a man’s moral descent. Rather, thus far, the story appears to be about a man’s life-long struggle to remain balanced on his moral tight-rope, hovering just above the void that seeks to finally do him in. So, when we take a closer look into Jimmy’s current condition, there seems to be a flighty glimmer hovering just over the horizon, making his journey even more compelling now than what we had previously believed it to be.

Better Call Saul: “Mijo”

 

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Bob Odenkirk on “Better Call Saul.” Ursula Coyote/AMC

 

“I’m not in the game, I promise.”

Second episodes are a fickle bitch. They are a notoriously difficult hurdle a show must clear to sustain its momentum in its first season. Choosing from a wide swath of directions it can venture down, the second episode can either build on the world depicted in its pilot by providing a deeper excavation into its characters or by broadcasting a variety of stories similar to the pilot in a semi-procedural fashion. The former route reflects the hope that audiences begin to emotionally connect with the story’s protagonists and the latter aims to provide a sentiment of normalcy that couples with the distinct feel and nature of the pilot.

However, Better Call Saul can afford to avoid that altogether. Although Vince Gilligan has gone on record stating that this show can be enjoyed without viewing a single episode of Breaking Bad, it nonetheless enriches the entire experience. We are made privy to this notion when Tuco lures Jimmy into his abuelita’s house with an aptly titled Raging Judge, locked and loaded. As this episode readily beats upon those sly moments of realization, it wouldn’t be a far-fetched wager to assume that a majority of “Mijo’s” viewership has already witnessed the five season-long ballad of Heisenberg. More importantly, the writers seem to be aware that that is very much the case, not playing shy to this rare and opportunistic case of “knowing your audience”.

Therefore, “Mijo” confidently peddles on forward, devoting a third of the episode’s running time to what I hope is one of many future showdowns between Special Agent Jeffery Steele Hostage Negotiator Extraordinaire Jimmy McGill and the Mad King Tuco. However, this is also where Better Call Saul begins to eschew the “Mr. Chips to Scarface” arc for something more categorically distinctive. Here, Jimmy’s words and actions expressed in his moments of desperation out in the desert reflect a character devoid of that high-quality, nitrogen-chilled pragmatism we’ve witnessed before.

Still, Jimmy’s encounter with Tuco out in the desert is a scene that viewers have seen play out through multiple iterations in Breaking Bad. Yet, unlike its predecessors, this scenario unfolds quite differently, beginning with Jimmy’s interrogation, led by a drug dealer named Nacho, who is accompanied by menacing household products #2, a pair of wire cutters – the #1 spot already staked by the four legged walking cane which Tuco uses with extreme prejudice against the twins back at his abuelita’s house.

Throughout the scene, Jimmy is forced to flip-flop his way towards preserving his pinky finger by starting with the truth, stating his occupation as a lawyer and revealing his plot to scam the Kettlemans, but is eventually forced to spice up his tale more aligned to Tuco’s taste. He drops tantalizing tales of Special Agent Jeffery Steele and Operation Kingmaker to Tuco’s grade school-like excitement (“That makes me the king! Woohoo!”). Eventually, Nacho chews through that too-bad-to-be-true bluff, choosing instead to believe that Jimmy was telling the truth to begin with. Therefore, Nacho reasons with Tuco, arguing that respect was consistently shown and in result, he secures Jimmy’s safe return to civilization.

The ultimate reasoning behind all of this? “Croaking a lawyer is bad business” Nacho remarks, but saving one is a whole ‘nother matter.

However, what happens next is something we haven’t seen before in the Heisenberg mythos. Compassion begins to hijack Jimmy’s pragmatism, even as we, the viewers, are cursedly nagging at him to cut his losses and quickly make his exit.  As Tuco brandishes his knife to the desperate shrills of the ducktaped skater twins, Jimmy cannot overrun his guilt. Instead, he stops and begins to plead for their lives as well. However, Tuco will not budge on this matter, wishing for the skateboarders to pay a high price for calling his abuelita a “crazy old bisnatch”.

Now finding himself in the ultimate game of deal-or-no-deal, Jimmy begins to simultaneously play on two strings that strike an emotional chord with Tuco – family and image. So, Jimmy leaves it up to him to commute the right sentence, pronouncing him as a tough figure, known to be just and fair. And after a spitting a well-spun tale of the twins’ hardworking mother, the semi-hilarious, bloodthirsty bargaining exchange begins, starting from the point of blinding (“eye for an eye”), silencing (“cut their tongues out!”) and amputation down to the agreed upon sentence of a broken leg for each twin.

Under the wire-garrote tense gaze of Michelle MacLaren’s camera work, Tuco gets to work on the twins, all the while Jimmy semi-forces himself to look upon the grotesque outcome of his initially innocuous scheme. Moreover, it is easy for us to lump the blame unto the twins in this case, who, back at the house, injudiciously identified Jimmy as the mastermind behind “punking” Tuco’s abuelita and thereby escalated the situation from house to desert. However, Jimmy’s subjection to Tuco’s sentence is a physical admittance of his culpability as well, and it is something that sets him well apart from the man who will eventually frequent this geographic domain, occasionally by his choice, mostly by force. Nonetheless, Jimmy’s guilt seems to have entirely dissipated by the time he reaches the hospital, when he rattles out the episodes most memorable line to the mangled, complaining twins; “I just talked you down from a death sentence to six months probation…I am the best lawyer ever.”

So, Jimmy tries to resume life as it was before, with an ongoing montage depicting his newly reformed ways now becoming habit. He buys an extra coffee for the courtroom security guard, he loans out his belt to an underdressed client, he buys a beanie baby for the courtroom paycheck issuant to make niceties, he amusingly imitates Bettlejuice in the men’s room (“It’s showtime!”) for some pre-trial warmups. So it appears that it is still decidedly Jimmy McGill that we are watching and that there is no hints of his evolution to be had as of yet. This is because Jimmy still has much to presently grapple with, even the bit of guilt he feels for not “grounding himself” at his brother’s house manifests in his repeated requests for Chuck to remove his space blanket.

In the episodes’ final scene, Jimmy is back at his office when, to his and the salon-owner’s collective surprise, a visitor drops by. It is Nacho, who has predictably come to collect further intel on Jimmy’s quick released whiff of the Kettlemans and their embezzled million and half in cash. However, Jimmy refuses to relent to Nacho’s pointed inquiries and rather effectively defends himself through his honest and retrospective temperament. There, he explains that he wasn’t “trying to rip them [the Kettleman’s] off” but rather that he “just wanted their business”. But he goes on to admit, “I crossed the line, I made a mistake, not again, not ever.” It is in that exact moment, where a moral line is drawn by Jimmy’s surprisingly poignant and self-reflective words, and it is that mark which then uncovers a sly bit of the threshold that lays between him and his eventual transformation in the weeks and months to come.

Better Call Saul: “Uno”

 

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Bob Odenkirk on “Better Call Saul.” Ursula Coyote/AMC

 

Sixteen months later and not a day too late.

Better Call Saul, the long rumored, oft speculated Breaking Bad prequel, is finally upon us. What a mix of emotions I felt when I saw creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s names blip across the show’s VHS tinted title sequence. And let me clarify – these were good emotions, healthy feelings, rooted within a long-gestating desire to return to Gilligan’s Albuquerque once again.

This is due to the fact that Gilligan’s vision of Albuquerque and its landscape has indelibly soldered itself upon the eyes of its viewers. That disparate link between the adobe-tinted suburbia and circumscribing badlands has held a five season-long conflict for geographic supremacy. Then it is important to recognize that Albuquerque too had become a player within Gilligan’s morality play, offering itself as an ambient construct that envisioned the threshold between civilization’s end and desolation’s beginning.

Yet the question remains, and now that I’ve seen it and you’ve seen it; Well, is it any good?

One thing that stuck out was that “Uno”, the pilot episode, was well paced, patient and, most importantly, confident, indicating that the same narrative cornerstones that made Walter’s journey flawlessly synchronized between tension, tale and thrill were also going to be applied here. In addition, Better Call Saul enthusiastically borrowed from its heralded TV cousin, opting also to begin with the cold open, a narrative device that its writers had already mastered to a state of sublime perfection.

So yes. Yes! I thought the inaugural episode was very good – even better with traces of greatness lying further ahead in the sun-drenched horizon. But to properly consider the episode as a whole product, its necessary to go back to “Uno’s” beginning, to that fantastically unforeseen cold open.

Filmed in black and white and attuned to the cooing melodies of The Ink Spots, the opening scenes unexpectedly reveal the extent of Saul Goodman’s post-Heisenberg activities, or rather, a complete lack thereof. Here, it is important we refer back to a piece of dialogue between Saul and Walt that helps clarify what is exactly happening in those opening scenes:

Initially, I always viewed this exchange to be a moment of classic-Saul conjecture in his moments of frustration or duress. However, in “Uno”, Saul’s “best-case scenario” sputterings actually do turn out to be his B&W filtered reality. With his eyes now permanently cast over his shoulders in the flatlands of Omaha, Saul portions out fists of dough, kneads the sugar coating unto the cinnasweeties, and rewatches a VHS of his 10-second ads whilst glumly nursing a rusty nail on the rocks. Here, the visuals, music selection and stark lack of dialogue all amount to an excellent opening, one brimming with subtle details and inviting shots that feel dissimilar enough while still sustaining that visual chemistry we’ve seen before.

And just like any other TV pilot, “Uno” begins to quickly lay down the initial pipework. The actual story begins in a painfully silent Albuquerque courtroom, where one Saul Goodman James “Jimmy” McGill is noticeably absent. He is instead moonlighting his final remarks by the men’s room urinals, and ultimately fails in his quest to defend his three teenaged “knuckleheads” from their “momentary, minute, never to be repeated lapse of judgment”. Yet, it is not Jimmy’s fault that the defense appears to be so shoddily put together at the last minute. If the lapse was the blasphemous act of skull-fucking an elderly male corpse, decapitating it, and then recording the traumatizing obscenity for all to witness, then Jimmy’s words were a casual formality before the preordained wrath of the judge, jury, and executioner was unleashed.

However, the real insult to Jimmy here is not his lost case but rather the sparse nature of his post-trial paycheck. You see, public defendant work has left our legal defender in dire financial straits. The situation has become so desperate that the threat of a $3 fine levied by toll guard Mike Ehrmantraut warrants a walk back to the courthouse for that last verification sticker. And Jimmy’s losing streak continues when potential big tuna client County Treasurer Craig Kettleman and his wife, Betsy, decline his legal services by touting the “maybe we should sleep on it honey” routine.

Despite all that has happened thus far, back at his makeshift nail salon closet space/law offices, Jimmy tears up a check for $26,000 without a moment’s hesitation. He then rumbles on over to the legal offices of Hamlin Hamlin and McGill’s to scatter the shredded remains of that check onto the table of its original issuers.

There, in that boardroom, the situation is made suddenly clear. The McGill in Hamlin Hamlin and McGill isn’t a reference to Jimmy but rather his older brother, Chuck McGill, who also happens to be a lawyer. For quite some time now, Chuck has taken a paid sabbatical leave due to suffering from a sickness known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Here, Jimmy’s bone to pick with the other two Hamlin’s concerns a savvy business ploy to oust Chuck from the firm without paying his severance, valued within the arena of a cool $17 million. And to throw one last wrench into the equation, it appears that Chuck’s old-moneyed loyalties to the firm will morally prevent him from executing Jimmy’s proposed exit-strategy.

Therefore, all the frustration that Jimmy has endured up to this point finally collapses in on itself when he spots his proverbial final straw, the Kettleman’s yakking it up at the doorsteps of Hamlin Hamlin and McGill. So he decides to enlist the skater twins who, earlier on, tried a quick hustle on him for some fast cash, and schemes a plot to reel the Kettleman’s away from Hamlin’s gilded pockets. With a camcorder, two skateboards, a blind corner and a swath of café-dwelling yuppies soon-to-be unwilling eyewitnesses, Jimmy IDs Mrs. Kettleman’s weekday route and sends the twins off to pull the standard you-skate-into-the-windshield-and-I-get-it-all-on-camera schtick. Then with distraught Betsy Kettleman in fear of tarnishing her husband’s public profile, Saul swoops in, diffuses the situation and walks away with her business, signature and all.

However, the windshield-shattered car never stops, causing the “injured” twins to actively chase after the now hit-and-run offender. In a dog chases the cat chases the mouse scenario, Jimmy ends up at the house where Mrs. Kettleman’s car is parked outside alongside two stray skateboards. He adamantly approaches the house and vocally demands to be let in at the front door, cue an armed Tuco Salamanca slyly emerging to happily oblige Jimmy’s request.

At this point, after watching scheme after scheme turn up Jimmy’s pockets lint-empty, we’ll take anything we can get for him to kickstart his unwitting drive towards becoming Saul Goodman. Now that he’s inadvertently tangled up with the local madcap drug kingpin, Tuco “TIGHT! TIGHT! TIGHT!” Salamanca, we should all let out a collective sigh, kick back and enjoy the ride; it finally appears that Jimmy is well on his way.