Better Call Saul Recap: Rough Times, Smooth Talk

Photo: Lewis Jacobs/AMC
Better Call Saul
Episode Title
Editor’s Rating

We pick up where we left off, only five minutes earlier and from a different perspective: Tuco answers the door and immediately starts questioning the twins, whose distinguishing characteristic so far seems to be the misguided perception that everyone else is actually dumber than they are. They demand money, Tuco listens; this is the cat calmly watching the mockingbirds flutter and chirp before he strikes.

But before we get too deep into the action, let’s take a moment with the credits: A brief snippet of road footage overlaid with blocky, public-access-style lettering, the kind used in old camcorder time-stamps. The impression is that you’re entering a world where things are cheap, found, and broken down, and yet in the cheapness lies a mystery — like found footage, you want to know where it came from, what larger picture it belongs to. Compared to the sheen and smolder of the Breaking Bad credits, Saul feels necessarily homespun, almost indie — a transmission from another place.  

Back to the Salamanca house. The twins naturally overstep their boundaries, which gets them quickly acquainted with the Tuco we remember: simple-minded and ultraviolent. He cracks both of their faces with his abuelita’s walker and drags them into the garage. Abuelita, meanwhile, is upstairs watching telenovelas; when she peeks downstairs and sees the blood in the carpet, Tuco tells her it’s salsa, and she weakly, nervously implores him to use a little club soda: Salsa will stain if he lets it dry too long. Tuco nods apologetically. (This is that serrated humor I referred to in my last recap.)

Then, a knock at the door: It's Jimmy, who is promptly welcomed with a gun. He of course starts jabbering frantically in an effort to find a weak wall in the situation. After a particularly long streak, Tuco says what we're already thinking, and something we probably thought a hundred times watching Saul on Breaking Bad: “Wow. You got a mouth on you.” It’s his sharpest tool and his last resort.

Cut to the middle of the desert, Tuco and his associates staged in the wind, Jimmy and the twins bound and writhing on the ground. Gilligan and the gang have always had a clever way of making the Southwest play against type: Instead of peaceful and expansive, it feels violent and claustrophobic, a place where people come to square off with a sunburnt ferocity that they can’t in the city. (Maybe it activates their lizard brains.) The abstraction of the landscape — tan sagebrush, cloudless sky — highlights the conflict between the people in it, whose emotions are so outsize — Jimmy’s fear, Tuco’s psychopathic calm — that they easily fill the space.

True to the character we know he’s becoming, Jimmy talks his way out of bondage. (Saul: A heartland huckster sarcastically genuflecting to power while staring down the barrel of someone else’s gun.) We see his knack for dealing with dangerous and unreasonable people, we see how his moral scruples disappear in the face of the possibility that this is all just a big negotiation, a big game. Odenkirk plays the scene like someone who just figured out how to shake two bags of chips out of his office vending machine for the price of one: self-satisfied and mildly astonished and how easy it was. He laughs silently. He can’t believe anyone else actually believes him. He could get used to this.

The episode’s central scene, as it often was with Breaking Bad, is a situation where even the best option involves serious harm to decent people. Jimmy manages to convince Tuco to spare the twins’ lives, but only by talking him down to two broken legs — one for each twin. (Jimmy later describes this as negotiating a death sentence down to six months’ probation.) The camera turns away from the violence, but Jimmy doesn’t — the least he could do for penance, you gather, is force himself to watch. The event is echoed immediately after, somewhat clumsily but with a thin little smirk, in a scene in which Jimmy struggles to pay attention to a hot date at a dimly lit lounge while a guy at the next table over keeps snacking on the free breadsticks — cracking them, one by one, over and over again. At a certain point in the scene, it’s the only sound we hear.

Corny and facile as the image may be, it reminded me of how good Breaking Bad was at mapping violence onto banality. Blood passed off as a salsa stain, a broken breadstick triggering the memory of a broken leg: This is the same world that Gilligan and his team created in Breaking Bad, a show where a car-wash operation also cleaned money, where buckets of secret sauce for a chicken chain also held methamphetamine. Over time, the effect was to make you see the potential for crime and violence in even the blandest situations — to make you see the world as its poor, frightened characters did.

Back to the strange fortress of Chuck, who is definitely Jimmy’s brother and possibly allergic to electricity, or perhaps just paranoid — it remains unclear and faintly frustrating. (Again, we’re only on the second episode, so I’m letting it ride as growing pains, the awkward byproduct of ambition.) Most of the third act is padded out with a long montage of Jimmy in and out of court: a never-ending circuit of fuck-ups, deadbeats, and other cases he can’t possibly win. He subsists on vending-machine coffee and Fritos; he never seems to have enough validation stickers to get out of the parking lot. (Mike Ehrmantraut, looking even more like a prehistoric fish than ever, plays the perfect, unyielding straight man to Jimmy's hysteria.)

Finally, we land in Jimmy’s office at the back of the nail salon. A hard day’s work done, he pulls out the sofa-bed and pours himself a tiny cocktail in a small plastic glass sans ice. A vision of him above, looking at the ceiling the way a little boy might: He seems almost … happy. And then comes the knock, literal and metaphorical: It's Tuco’s associate (also, hey, Vic!), the one who initially talked him into sparing Jimmy's life, coming to call in the favor he'd promised as reward. He’s mellow, he’s collected, and he has a proposition. Remember that embezzlement case you were talking about out in the desert? he asks. He wants to rip them off, and he needs Jimmy’s help in finding them. 

Jimmy hems and haws. “I’m a lawyer,” he says, “not a criminal” — a little bit of a groaner, writing-wise. (One of the most elegant aspects of Breaking Bad is that Walter White was never sure of when he was crossing the line into immorality, and when he did, it could easily be redrawn at some distant point. He processed gradually, naturally. I get why the show was called Breaking Bad, but could you ever really pinpoint the moment that he broke?) Tuco’s associate finally leaves Jimmy with his number, “for when you figure out you’re in the game.” 

It’s definitely a tighter episode than the first, quarantined to a few long scenes instead of fanning out into what felt like countless smaller vignettes. The plot is taking shape, the orchestra tuning up. One thing we don’t know, and maybe will never learn: Why is Jimmy so concerned with doing the right thing in the first place? Walter White was an oblivious middle-aged man who loved chemistry, radically charged by the news that he has only months to live. Jimmy already seems savvy enough to know the ropes of the world he’s avoiding. My guess is that it somehow lies in Chuck, fretful little Buddha wrapped in his foil space blanket, but the show hasn’t told anything for sure yet.