Better Call Saul: “Alpine Shepherd Boy”
“Need a will? Call McGill.”
I visited the city of Austin, Texas last summer whilst on a road trip from Dallas. It was there where I first came across the city’s unofficial slogan, “Keep Austin Weird”; which seemed well-earned after I witnessed an impromptu gospel morning concert at a local breakfast burrito joint. Likewise, if its been one objective in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul that I had, have and will always support, it is Vince Gilligan’s intent and inclination towards always keeping Albuquerque weird.
Often times, it is the sublimely depicted desolation, with the infusion of its sepia-toned suburbia, that makes this city seem worlds apart from what most viewers would call home. However, “Alpine Shepherd Boy” chooses to shift that focus once again towards the human locale, inviting viewers to make the rounds with Jimmy McGill throughout Albuquerque as he starts to follow up on three of the seven voicemails left in reaction to his heroics in “Hero”. It is here, where the people who occupy the Albuquerque of Gilligan’s universe show us, the viewers, how wondrously weird and endearing this city can be.
Our first stop is Richard “Ricky” Sipes, a self-made American patriot with a Hemmingway-esque appetite for exotic hunting and hard liquor. As Ricky outlines his grand delusions of legal succession from his “beloved” country, he reveals the ultimate goal of transforming his 1,100 acres into “America’s Vatican City”. Jimmy, still frozen from a sheer mix of both awe and doubt, sputters a barely convincing “Ricky, I’m your man”. As it seems to good to be true for Jimmy when Ricky promises $500,000 upfront in cash; as Jimmy watches Ricky present the crisp stacks of cash on a silver platter, it is confirmed to be exact that once Jimmy flips through the bills and come across the Sipes version of a Schrute Buck.
The second stop is Albuquerque’s harmless, suburbanite, father of two, Roland Jaycocks. With his tarp-covered creation in the middle of the basement, Roland expresses his need for a lawyer with a specialized expertise in patent law. As the covers are pulled back, Tony the Toilet Buddy is revealed; just your everyday porcelain throne with a small voice box attached under the water tank. As Roland drops his son Chandler’s Duplo blocks into the empty bowl, he simulates Chandler’s potty time, triggering Tony to spout his voice recorded cheers and thereby revealing their overtly sexual euphemisms: “Oh, yeah, that’s the way!”, “Gosh you’re big, you’re so big! My goodness, look at you!”, “Fill me up, Chandler! Put it in me!”, and “Give it to me Chandler, I want it all! Mmm. Ah!”.
Thus far, no dice and no cash for Jimmy as he sits patiently in his chair, surrounded by Hummel figurines, all the while Mrs. Strauss takes a full minute and half to make her way downstairs via chair-lift. Here, it is important to make note of the triple sided intent in this prolonged scene. Plain and simple, the patience that Jimmy exhibits towards Mrs. Strauss is vital to his character development. This visit finally earns Jimmy that bit of coin due to his patience, awareness, and “moxie” towards Mrs. Strauss’ overly complex estate instructions (“Now the shepherd boy Hummel, that going to go to your nephew…as long as he finishes college, if he drops out it goes to my niece, Rayleine”). Furthermore, the restraint shown here by the writers, once again, indicates their willingness to take their bided time with the storytelling, earning each moment and a-ha! reveal as they organically come. Lastly, Mrs. Strauss’s scene reminds us, the audience, who are ever-so raring for a Breaking Bad easter egg or a To’hajiilee-like cliffhanger, that these quiet moments make those narrative climaxes feel that much more cathartic, purging out all the prior-built tension, character arcs, and thematic metaphors in one massive fell swoop.
As Jimmy amusingly recaps his day with Kim whilst painting her toes at the Day Spa and Nail, Kim receives a call from Howard Hamlin about Chuck’s incident depicted in the episode’s cold open. Regarding the stolen newspaper containing Jimmy’s front page article, Chuck inadvertently escalates his altercation with the police, trying to explain his condition over their aggressive demands, and ending up with his front door bashed in and two tasers shot his way. When Jimmy visits him in the hospital, Chuck is found incapacitated in a electro-magnetic hellscape of fluorescent lights and medical machinery. However, once Jimmy has managed to fish out all the devices and equipment in the room, Chuck recovers just in the nick of time to express his discontent at the doctor’s advice towards committing him for a month or so.
When Jimmy eventually assists Chuck back home, a unique dynamic within their relationship begins to spool forward as they discuss the billboard gag from “Hero”. While Jimmy preemptively mounts a stalwart defense against the unmentioned notion that “Slippin’ Jimmy” has returned, Chuck doesn’t seem all too concerned with the either/or’s in the situation. While Jimmy wants to talk about his one time spoof, Chuck, nonplussed, reiterates that he has “nothing to talk about”. While Jimmy is intent on promising to Chuck that it won’t happen again, Chuck dismissively expresses that he doesn’t want or need Jimmy’s blood oath.
Therefore, it seems that Jimmy persistently presses in on this issue, intent on disavowing Chuck from being his advocate in a way that is related to him enabling Chuck’s condition. A moral push and pull can be seen in the way Jimmy goes back and forth with his brother with his words, practically nagging him to sign up as his life accountability partner – still, Chuck won’t budge, rather focusing on cozying himself up in his space blanket and then deciding that coffee was more important than the future condition of his brother’s soul.
Subsequently, there is a strange dynamic present in the McGill brother’s relationship due to the guilt that Jimmy feels in regards to the reality of Chuck’s “ailment’. This keys the audience into Jimmy’s opinions and thoughts, that there may be an underlying element to his brother’s situation that is more psychological than physical. As a result, it is that revelation that manifests in Jimmy’s desire to position his brother not as a reckless proponent but rather as an impartial arbiter of moral legitimacy in his life. Sadly, it seems that Jimmy is experiencing the rare case of being related to the wrong person at the wrong time; he won’t be able to easily schlep his moral development onto the hypochondriac shoulders of his older brother, who is too focused in on himself to care about anything else. It’s apparent that this is Jimmy’s struggle to face alone, made all the more difficult by the clients that can undo him, Nacho, the Kettlemans, and now Mike, all lie waiting on the outer rim of the episode’s narrative screen, seeking to pull him downward when the chance presents itself.
Bits and Pieces:
1. I much preferred the original title “Jello” as opposed to “Alpine Shepherd Boy”. Nevertheless, if they had kept this up then I assume the writers were staring down the gun-barrel of commitment not unlike Hannibal and its linguistically consistent episode titles. “Alpine Shepherd Boy” apparently was their abrupt out, enabling them to buck that trend.
2. The intro card’s location for “Alpine Shepherd Boy”, which varies from every episode, should be forever engrained in the memory of Breaking Bad’s viewership for this memorable cold open in Season 2, Episode 8’s “Better Call Saul”.
3. I’d say that “Alpine Shepherd Boy” was the weakest of the five episodes thus far, but still very good. The pacing of Jimmy’s rounds compared to Chuck’s hospitalization scene and the decision to end with Mike’s POV seemed a bit too jarring to be fluidly depicted within a single episode.
4. “Is that helping? Or enabling?” — This should have been the motto of Jimmy’s practice.
5. A bit haphazard of an ending, yet necessary in order to cause the fates of Mike Ehrmantraut and Jimmy McGill to begin to snarl into one another.
5. Next week, we get a Mike-centric episode, finally revealing a bullet-hole ray of light on the man of mystery that is Ehrmantraut. “Oh be still my heart.”