Well, it’s been awhile. Since I posted any recaps of anything in the Breaking Bad universe, and since I last watched the pilot.
I forgot how good it was, especially now that it’s been awhile since the most recent season (five) aired. How vivid this world is with its big Albuquerque skies and desert landscapes. How vibrant the storytelling.
Anyway, since I’m discussing the episode, there will be spoilers. And probably won’t be that interesting (or easy to follow) if you’ve never seen the episode. Which you can watch on Netflix.
It probably makes sense to start with a summary of the episode. I’m going to go in-depth on the summaries because from talking to people, I think some want to use these recaps as a way to refresh themselves on everything that happened, before the final season comes out, whenever that may be.
In the teaser, we have a flashforward to after the events of Breaking Bad, where Saul has used Ed the Disappearer to escape the law in Albuquerque and all his implications in Walt’s crimes as well as his own, and is hiding out working at a Cinnabon in Omaha. He goes home after work and watches his old commercials when he was still Saul.
After the title sequence, we’re back in 2002, before Saul’s Saul at all. He’s Jimmy McGill, working public defender cases and struggling and failing to keep his head above water financially. He tries a bunch of things to make money, like the public defender work ($700/case). He tries to land a more lucrative case with the Kettlemans, a couple who he knows will soon be indicted for embezzlement of over a million dollars from the country treasury (Craig Kettleman is or was the country treasurer) and will need a lawyer but they decide to hold off. Specifically, Betsy Kettleman suggests they hold off on signing on with Jimmy.
He tries to get his brother bought out of the law firm he worked for, Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill (HHM). There’s a lot of talk about whether Chuck can ever come back to work, and if he can beat this, without ever saying what this is. Later, Jimmy visits Chuck and tries to convince him to push to be bought out of HHM, which ignites an argument. It’s revealed, in a well-done and not overly expository way, that Chuck’s “illness” is a sensitivity to electricity. We also get the sense that Jimmy takes care of Chuck in many ways. Chuck isn’t having any of this talk of being bought out from HHM and says he’ll beat this and be able to go back to work.
Jimmy’s on his phone and driving when he “hits” a skateboarder whose twin brother was filming the whole thing. He quickly figures out that the guy is faking it to try to extract some money from him and tells the twins the business.
Later in the episode, Jimmy tells the twins the story of how, back in Cicero, IL, he used to be Slippin’ Jimmy–he’d “slip” and sue and make lots of money that way, much more than the twins tried to extort out of him. He then enlists them to run their scam on Betsy Kettleman, where he plans to swoop in and save the day in lawyerly ways in hopes she will see his lawyerly value and convince her husband to hire Jimmy for their embezzlement case, and with the money that would come from that, he can pay the twins and himself and get ahead.
It all looks good to go. The boys see what they think is Mrs. Kettleman’s car that Jimmy had them burn into their memories. The driver of the car takes off instead of stopping to see if the twin she “hit” was injured and the twins follow, and harass the woman, who’s not here for it at all and call Jimmy. He’s excited by it, because a hit-and-run is a much more serious crime. He can swoop in and save a bigger day as her lawyer.
Jimmy finds them, via the lookalike car, and sees their skateboards inside and knocks on the door. He’s greeted by a gun in his face and is pulled inside. Then the bearer of the gun steps outside to look around and it’s Tuco Salamanca, who we remember from his handful of episodes on Breaking Bad as a bit of a violent maniac. And scene.
Oh yeah, and Mike makes a brief appearance as the cantankerous parking attendant. And we get tiny glimpses of Kim.
Thoughts on the Episode
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how different Saul’s journey in BCS is from Walt’s in Breaking Bad. Walt had a pretty drastic change–he went from normal, middle-class dad teaching high school chemistry to meth cook and murderer within like two days of his cancer diagnosis. He fought against it or at least fought against thinking of himself as the kind of person who was a bad guy, always seeing himself as above that criminal world, even as he blew shit up with fulminated mercury and stole methylamine and inflicted more havoc.
With Saul, who in a way seems the more soulless, at least as we know him on Breaking Bad, it’s a much slower burn. Some say too slow. I think that’s the main complaint about BCS, the pacing. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I liked it from the start. But Saul also doesn’t start his journey in such a non-criminal place as Walt does. He has that whole Slippin’ Jimmy past, after all. He does share with Walt though, even as he cooks up schemes, that he doesn’t see himself, now, as being part of the criminal world, which will become explicit in the text of the show in the next episode.
In a way, BCS usually has lower stakes–there is just so much that revolves around different law firms and practices in the Jimmy aka Saul storyline.
Another thing that struck me is that both men and primarily motivated to embrace their less socially upstanding aspects of themselves by money troubles. Walt’s is more extreme, suddenly needing all kinds of chemo he can’t afford and realizing he has nothing to leave behind for his family upon his terminal diagnosis. Jimmy’s financial struggles feel more…mundane I think. And maybe that’s why his story unravels slower; he doesn’t have the one huge thing that gets him into the criminal world, but a million little things.
Saul isn’t set loose by some major event like a cancer diagnosis, but instead goes through a slow, and perhaps more nuanced evolution (devolution? what’s the opposite of evolution?) of character.
For most of Better Call Saul, Saul isn’t even Saul, he’s Jimmy McGill. But first when we see him on screen, he’s Gene.
Every season of Better Call Saul starts out with a black-and-white teaser in the first episode that’s a flashforward that happens after the events of Breaking Bad, before going into the prequel world where the series spends its time. There’s one teaser that overlaps with the Breaking Bad timeline, but it’ll be quite some time before we get there.
In Saul’s last scene in Breaking Bad, when he’s with Walt as they’re both working with Ed the Disappearer, Saul says he’ll be lucky to end up working at a Cinnabon in a mall in Omaha. And that’s exactly where our disappeared Saul ends up. His new identity is Gene at the Cinnabon. The black and white seems apropos, as Gene’s life feels devoid of much color–and Saul had so much color in his wardrobe and otherwise–and there’s a lot of repetition, a lot of Cinnabon process, a sense of day-in, day-out.
That and anxiety about being recognized. Saul’s whole career as the criminal lawyer showcased his face on ads and benches and billboards and commercials. He’s pretty recognizable, at least to the criminal element of Albuquerque, so even though he’s far-ish away, he has a fair amount of fear about being recognized.
In that teaser, there’s a snowstorm and Gene is at home, and he closes the blinds and watches his old commercials. In my memory, the ads were in color, the only part of the teaser not black-and-white. But that was wrong. The ads are never shown at all, just heard. The camera stays on Gene’s face, reminiscing over his old life.
The series proper, after the teaser and title sequence, starts with quiet and waiting in a courtroom. It goes on an uncomfortably long time, until we finally see Saul before he’s Saul, as Jimmy McGill, in the men’s room practicing his public defender speech at the urinal. This gets called back to in a lovely way later in the episode when Jimmy’s practicing what he’s going to say when he “happens” across Mrs. Kettleman after she “hits” the skateboarding twin.
One thing that struck me is that in that in that scene that opens the episode proper, where we’re in the courtroom, just waiting, the nameplate of the judge is out of focus, but the credits come up almost directly over it. Just interesting.
When Mike enters the story, we hear him before we see him. I remember being so surprised, upon first seeing this, that we meet Mike as a parking booth attendant, being all snarky about Jimmy not having enough stickers. And that’s it. That’s all we see in the first episode. Almost like a cameo.
Timing. The episode takes place in 2002–I remember it being widely publicized before the series started that BCS would start in 2002 and that the events of Breaking Bad were supposed to have started in 2008 and lasted through 2010 (though there are some time anomalies in there). In the scene where Jimmy’s driving, right before he “hits” the skateboarding twin, he’s giving his credit card information over the phone and gives an expiration date in ’04.
One thing the episode did really well was to not dump any unnatural exposition. I don’t think it’s ever stated explicitly that Chuck is Jimmy’s brother, though if there’s any uncertainty, it clears up when they talk about the use of the name McGill. Still, there’s still no mention of the word “brother” (unless I missed it), or some awkward “how long’ve we been brothers?” shit. I don’t think it’s made clear that Chuck is older either, but it seems obvious by their dynamic. I feel like that’s maybe a dig at Chuck but as an oldest, I think I can say that?
The issue about the name is so interesting. Chuck is the McGill in the HHM law firm, Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, and he doesn’t want Jimmy using the name McGill for his law practice, even though as Jimmy says, “that’s my name.” It struck me because names are so important in this show. Jimmy McGill, who once was Slippin’ Jimmy who faked accidents to win lawsuits, is on a journey to become Saul Goodman, and eventually to go into hiding as Gene.
It also strikes me as a really difficult issue between brothers. Chuck the upstanding one who does everything by the book and never cuts corners, clearly doesn’t want to be associated with Jimmy, doesn’t want Jimmy to use the same name, suggests alternatives. You can tell Jimmy’s hurt by this, by being asked not to use his own name. You can hear it in his voice. He doesn’t sound angry, he sounds surprised and hurt.
Another not overly expositioned thing is Chuck’s electrical sensitivity disease mumbo jumbo. In a great example of show-don’t-tell, it feels natural the way it’s introduced. Jimmy leaves all his electronics in the mailbox. He grounds himself. He lights a lantern. There’s an obvious lack of electricity in Chuck’s house. There’s (natural) talk of Howard Hamlin of HMM having come by and grounding himself and putting his stuff in the mailbox too. And of how if Jimmy can’t get ahead financially, they might lose the house and then Chuck’ll be out there, homeless, with all kinds of electricity in the air.
I have to say, Chuck’s illness was one of the most fascinating things to me, and I was curious to see how the show would go forward with it–would they treat it as literally real or as something in Chuck’s head? That’ll be revealed in time. Right now, Jimmy and the scammy twins have Tuco to contend with.
Jimmy kicking the garbage can reminded me a lot of Walt punching the paper towel dispenser after he gets the prognosis that he will, in fact, live. Both had a similar energy of frustration taken out on these objects, and I particularly liked how this was shot, and how we see Kim picking it up afterward. I’m looking forward to future episodes with a lot more Kim.