Better Call Saul: “Nacho”
“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.