“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.