/ K.M. McFarland / 7 am Tue, Mar 3 2015
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  • The midpoint of Better Call Saul's first season hinges on scenes without Jimmy

    The midpoint of Better Call Saul's first season hinges on scenes without Jimmy

    The latest episode of the Breaking Bad spinoff, recapped for your further entertainment.

    There have been very few scenes in Better Call Saul without Bob Odenkirk. I can recall a scene between Howard and Kim at Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill, but that mostly concerned Jimmy and the billboard situation. There’s the scene with Tuco, his grandmother, and the two skater morons—but that was a brief moment without Jimmy in a timeline that always included him. And last week’s episode ended with Chuck stealing his elderly neighbor’s newspaper, but that’s more of a continuation of a previous scene, and it’s also because Chuck fears there’s something in it about Jimmy. This all makes sense for a show built around its star and ostensibly telling the story of how the slimy lawyer from Breaking Bad became the go-to criminal lawyer. But James McGill/Saul Goodman isn't the only story worth elucidating in this part of the timeline.

    “Alpine Shepherd Boy” begins, much like second episode “Mijo,” with a scene carved out of Jimmy’s story that he triggers, but isn’t around for. But the episode ends with the first scenes that truly do not involve Jimmy, and simply have nothing to do with him in the moment. This is the midpoint of the first season, where a lot of the slow work that has gone into character development needs to get moving—and that’s exactly what the plot does by the end, teasing out more mystery that will draw Jimmy McGill closer to potential crimes.

    Let’s start back at that first scene though, with Chuck talking to two police officers outside his door. It’s not difficult to take this as an indictment of overzealous police work. Sure, Chuck stole a newspaper from his neighbor. But he stole a newspaper from his neighbor. De-escalation tactics would be best applied here, and yet, Chuck goes through his nightmare scenario, exposed to the outside world and shocked with a taser. There seems to be good reasons piling up as to why Saul eventually works so tirelessly against the police. In his eyes, they aren’t helpful, and prove to be hopelessly biased, corrupt, or incompetent impediments to peaceful, unobstructed society. Granted, he eventually sours that stance even further to take the side of obvious and admitted violent criminals, but he starts from a position of distrust caused by what he views as officer misconduct.

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    Jimmy is initially oblivious to what happens to his brother after he departs for his appointments, as he has to rush off to the first of his meetings. When Jimmy checked his voicemail in last week’s episode and discovered that he’d finally managed to bring in some business, he thought things were finally looking up. But once again, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould zagged, and Jimmy found himself wading through increasingly ridiculous and unviable potential clients.

    First he meets a man who wants to pay him $1 million to help him attempt to secede from the United States—only to offer the payment in money only good in the hypothetical new republic, “America’s Vatican City.” Next is a man, played by the lead guy from Onion Labs’ Clio-winning sponsored content YouTube series Tough Season, who has invented a talking toilet that encourages children to finish their business. (It’s basically a comically and unintentionally sexual version of O.T. from Bob’s Burgers.) By the time Jimmy fills out a will for an elderly woman who sets forth unnecessarily complicated instructions for bequeathing her figurines—one of which lends the episode its title—he can barely contain his desperation when she pays him his full fee of $140.

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    There is perhaps no image that encapsulates the absurd hilarity and glacial pace of Better Call Saul’s first five episodes than a woman descending a stair lift as Jimmy attempts not to jump out of his skin in frustration. It has been a deliberately prodding progression, but with images like this, it’s rewarding.

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    When Jimmy finds out about his brother—while painting Kim’s toenails and modestly celebrating a newfound avenue into “Elder Law”—he immediately rushes to the hospital, where he clashes with the attending physician (Clea DuVall). Once they remove all electronic devices from the room, Chuck slowly comes back from his catatonic state, and argues against the idea of institutionalization. The doctor proves to Jimmy and Kim, while triggering the electronics in Chuck’s hospital bed, that the condition is in fact all in Chuck’s head. Kim exhibits doubts over Chuck’s mental state, but Jimmy, though he recognizes that something is wrong, can’t bring himself to side against his brother’s wishes.

    “Is that helping, or enabling?” the doctor asks. At times, Jimmy wavers between genuinely looking out for his brother and perhaps enabling his psychosis due to the potential for monetary gain from Chuck’s firm. But ultimately, Jimmy just can’t overcome how smart he perceives his brother to be in his best moments. That is, of course, until Howard shows up. Then all Jimmy can do is shout that Howard only sees Chuck as a “cash cow” and how he’ll have his brother committed so he can become legal guardian and cash out of Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill once and for all. It’s a bluff, but it’s a good one, a serious ploy that demonstrates to Kim just how little Jimmy trusts Howard’s intentions.

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    After Jimmy takes Chuck home, they finally have it out over the billboard and the newspaper publicity. Chuck, exhibiting his archaic principles, finds the very idea of an attorney advertising scandalous, citing “five Supreme Court Justices” who “went completely bonkers” to allow that. But despite the ill-gotten gains that funded the charade, Jimmy convinces Chuck that elder law has potential, and all it takes is one well-executed montage to prove how. Jimmy watches Andy Griffith on Matlock to craft a suit, and buys custom McGill-branded Jell-O cups to pass out at a senior center. He’s schmoozing potential clients in a way that requires him to look and act a certain part, not prove his legal competency. Maybe he doesn’t believe he’s innately intelligent like his brother, but one thing is clear: Jimmy believes that by projecting a certain image instead of proving his abilities, he can get the most mileage out of his talent.

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    Which leaves the final minutes of the episode, as Better Call Saul hands things off from a slightly satisfied and happier Jimmy to Mike Ehrmantraut, still standing stoic guard over the parking lot in his little booth. I remarked to my father during this episode that we don’t know exactly where in the course of his backstory Mike is at this point. Given what is revealed about him during Breaking Bad, it’s not clear when or how he became embroiled in the Albuquerque criminal underworld. And given the tiny bits of information revealed so far, it looked like the show would be slow-playing his future involvement in Saul Goodman and Gustavo Fring’s dealings. But this episode advanced Mike’s plotline considerably, without much warning or development, and the arbitrary nature of that surge forward felt a bit strange.

    Mike leaves his job in the morning after working the night shift, covers his face in distress while eating at a diner, and then drives to a house where a woman in a nurse’s uniform leaves for work and spots him sitting in his car. It’s relatively clear this is Mike’s daughter, presumably the mother of the granddaughter that he sometimes cares for in Breaking Bad. At the moment, to call their relationship strained would be an understatement.

    In his small home, watching old television reruns alone, Mike is similar to the lonely and wistful Saul in the series opening sequence, and not that far away from Walt in Breaking Bad’s penultimate episode “Granite State.” He’s older, grizzled, and separated from anyone and everyone in his life who meant anything to him. Given the way the cops show up at Mike’s door, and the way he recognizes them, it’s reasonable to assume they’re from his time in Philadelphia, and the business card Jimmy handed Mike will come in handy. What remains to be seen is whether Better Call Saul will ramp up the narrative pace now that there’s a reason for Jimmy and Mike to work together, and whether it will lose the rewarding character shading in the process.

     

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