Great news: The Great Backstory Flood of “Better Call Saul” has finally passed. The governor has lifted the state of emergency, and FEMA crews are headed into the area to pick up loose plot threads before they drown. Looks like clear skies from here on out.
You want to be kind of frustrated that it took this long for the show to relieve itself of its plot constipation, but then you remember that the best parts of “Breaking Bad,” especially in that first season, were in the show’s mastery of the empty spaces in between the meth-making montages and grisly violence. That slow ratcheting of tension that glued you to your TV is present on this show, but it’s played for comedy a lot more often than drama, and somehow it works out. And speaking of montages, oh man, just you wait.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Okay.
So mild-mannered Tuco Salamanca is making salsa in his grandmother’s kitchen, minding his own business, when his grandmother comes home and there are these two skater jerks with her. She’s kinda freaked because she just hit one with her car, but Tuco keeps everybody calm, even when one of the skater jerks calls his abuela a “biz-natch.”
He calmly soothes his grandmother’s jangled nerves, calmly ushers her upstairs to watch her favorite telenovela, calmly hushes the increasingly strident skaters.
“Calmly” is a weird, interesting word, here, for people who remember Tuco mostly as a guy who snorted a shit-ton of meth and beat the complete fuck out of a lot of people for little to no reason. So it’s a bit more familiar when he calls upstairs to his grandmother to “turn the volume up” on her show “so you can hear it. REALLY loud.” Also sort of disappointing, honestly. I was kind of looking forward to seeing how Tuco went from a regular dude to total psychopath across the course of the series, but Raymond Cruz is apparently just doing a guest spot, here, so I guess they had to accelerate that particular plotline.
Saying all that to say that no sooner has his grandma shut the door to her room than Tuco starts smashing the skaters’ faces in with the lady’s walker. Like you do.
Enter Jimmy McGill, who as we all remember from last episode was yelling outside a house before a giant handgun entered his life.
So Jimmy is invited in. Tuco is trying to figure out what he knows, but his abuela keeps being a busybody to comedic effect (“What’s that on the carpet?” “I spilled salsa!” “Don’t forget to use club soda!”), and eventually, Jimmy talks his and his idiot skater proteges out of harm. They’re in the garage. All Jimmy has to do is cut them loose and GTFO before anybody says anything stupid.
So of course as soon as he pulls the tape off the first skater kid’s mouth, the kid screams, “IT WAS HIS IDEA! WE WERE GONNA SCAM YOUR GRANDMA!” Like you do.
Now, this is the first time I’ve taken real issue with any of the actual plotting of the show. Right after the skater bro says that, Tuco puts the gun back into Jimmy’s eye, and Jimmy gets an “oh god i’m gonna die” look on his face and then we cut to commercial. But here’s the thing: When that shit happened to Walter White we had the benefit of (a) an insane, anything-goes plot and (b) not knowing the ending to Walt’s story. With this show, we all know how it ends–lest we forget what happened literally 24 real-people hours ago, the end was actually the beginning of the fucking series. It’d be one thing if it was played explicitly for comedy, here, but Jimmy McGill doesn’t have that great Saul Goodman survival instinct yet, so he just puts on the exact face I would put on if I knew somebody was three seconds away from turning my head into pink tapioca. It’s kind of lame, is what I’m saying, and I hope they don’t go to that well too often.
Doesn’t help, either, that the next scene happens to be one of “Breaking Bad’s” favorite setpieces: A down-on-his-luck loser tied up in the middle of the New Mexico desert and being loomed over by guys who are way harder than him. Happened, what, at least five times just off the top of my head in BB, right? Except the difference here is that this scene IS played explicitly for comedy, and as a result it’s actually pretty fucking great.
First thing that happens is Tuco asks Jimmy for the truth, and Jimmy, in a very not-Saul maneuver, tells him. They were gonna try and roll the Kettlemanseses because they embezzled a shit-ton of money, but Tuco’s grandmother drives a similar car, yadda yadda yadda, guns in faces.
Tuco, of course, does not believe him. So as he’s threatening Jimmy’s left pinkie finger with a pair of wire cutters, Jimmy finally spills the real truth:
“I’m special agent Jeffrey Steel. FBI.”
Tuco, of course, believes him. But his right-hand man, whose name is actually Nacho for some goddamn reason, isn’t so sure.[ref]NACHO: “What do you know about us? What do we sell?”
JIMMY: “Uh, drugs!”
NACHO: “What kind of drugs?”
JIMMY: “Tiny 21s, schedule 2 through schedule B. That’s what we call ’em at the bureau. It’s called Operation Kingbreaker.”
TUCO: “Operation Kingbreaker? THAT MAKES ME THE KING! WOOOOO!”[/ref] So Nacho comes over and gets the actual real truth, which was the first thing. Tuco is pretty disappointed and wants to murder everybody, but Nacho talks him down to just murdering the skater kids and letting Jimmy go. They called his abuela a biz-natch, after all.
But as Jimmy’s walking away, he hears the muffled screams of the skater kids and can’t bear to have that on his conscience. And that’s when we see Saul for the second time. And it is fucking masterful.
This scene goes from total “Breaking Bad” cliche swagger-jack to the first taste of “Better Call Saul’s” true potential as its own force for good in the TV universe. Jimmy abandons his escorts to walk back over to Tuco. He opens with, “Can I say something?” and Tuco responds with, “Are you an idiot?” and the negotiations begin. Saul starts with some lies about the kids’ mom, then flips it over to the search for justice and the Code of Hammurabi and how to make the punishment fit the crime. By the end of the sidebar, he’s convinced Tuco to just break one of their legs each, with the reasoning that they won’t be able to scam anybody for six months and that justice will have been served. That’s tough,” Jimmy says, “but that’s fair.”
The two men shake on it, and then Tuco goes and breaks the kids’ legs. Happens off-camera, but you get to see Jimmy’s reaction to the whole thing while Tuco is all WOOOOOOOOO. He tries his best to look pleased with himself, but he can’t quite keep it up the whole time. Haven’t said this yet, so I’ll say it here: Bob Odenkirk is a fucking fantastic actor.
Later, as Jimmy’s rushing the skaters to the hospital (fingers crossed that this is the last we’ll see of these two fucking twerps), one of them tells Jimmy that he’s the worst lawyer ever. To which Jimmy responds, “I just talked you down from a death sentence to six months’ probation. I’m the BEST lawyer ever.”
Ah, but that confidence doesn’t last Jimmy long. The next scene is him on a date at a bar with a lovely lady who seems totally into him, but as the evening wears on some dude nearby just keeps snapping breadsticks. Just snapping them right in two. With this increasingly loud, sickening crunch every time. Actions and consequences have always been a thing of the “Breaking Bad” universe, but the old show was always way too self-important to do anything as funny as have Walter White hoisted on his own petard for the sake of what amounts to a cockblock.
After that, Jimmy crashes drunkenly at his brother’s house except ooops in his stupor he forgot about the whole “Chuck is deathly afraid of electricity” thing and comes into the house with a cell phone. Here we get to see the depths of Chuck’s psychosis as he holds the phone at arm’s length from the living room to the front door and pitches it into the yard and then spends the rest of the night and the morning enshrouded in a space blanket.
In the morning, the two have a little heart-to-heart, Jimmy decides maybe he’s terrible at this whole lawyer-cum-scam-artist thing anyway, and goes back to where we found him, a public defender for losers and no-hopers.
And here, kids, is where we get our first montage. It’s a lawyerin’ montage. And it is AWESOME. Again, we see exactly what we all want this show to be: Jimmy making deals, telling murderers with facial tattoos to apologize to judges, and arguing with Mike Ehrmantraut, asshole parking attendant extraordinaire. Magic, people. Pure fucking magic.
So after all that hard work, Jimmy heads back to his office in the custodial closet of a Vietnamese mani/pedi shop to find… zero messages on his answering machine. No clients, no prospects. All he’s got is half a tiny bottle of rum and a fold-out couch that he has to move his office desk to lay down on. And then fold right the fuck back up because oh shit there’s a customer outside! Fix your hair, apologize for the temporary mess because your “office is being painted” and oh fuck it’s Nacho oh jeez oh shit.
Nacho’s been thinking, you see. About the Kettlemanseseses and all that money they probably stole. North of a million and a half bucks. He wants to rip them off, but first he needs to know where the money is. And Jimmy McGill is just the man to find out.
Jimmy balks because he, he swears, is not a criminal, and Nacho just raises one eyebrow at him and leaves his phone number, “For when you figure out you’re in the game.”
“I’m not in the game, I promise!” Jimmy yells as Nacho walks past a half-dozen pedicures and out the door. Sure thing, Saul. Sure thing.