On Monday night, one of this year’s most anticipated TV dramas used a minute and 26 seconds of airtime to show an elderly figurine collector descending a staircase and sitting on her couch. It was slow. It was dull. It was beige. It was also the purest expression yet of Better Call Saul’s dedication to patient pacing—a courageous storytelling approach that brings viewers into the agony of Jimmy McGill.
The problem of a prequel is that we know where it ends up. Jimmy will become Saul Goodman, the crafty and nimble strip-mall lawyer who has an angle for everything. This could deprive Better Call Saul of some tension: There’s none of the “how will it end?” intrigue that helped make Breaking Bad so irresistible. And many TV creators would be fine with that. Saul is a spinoff. It’s not expected to match the greatness of its forebear. If the show were merely a vehicle for Bob Odenkirk’s ample talents, a way for us to learn more about a charming character and extend the Breaking Bad backstory, nobody would complain.
But Saul creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are not satisfied to let this show be a companion piece. They understand that we’re all waiting for Saul Goodman to emerge, and they use that to enrich the story by making us feel the weight of the wait. In this respect, the Hummel collector’s descent down the stairs is a visual microcosm of the series’ preordained arc. Just as we know that Jimmy will transform into Saul, we know that the woman’s chair lift will reach the bottom of the stairs. Eventually. The question—both for this scene from “Alpine Shepherd Boy” and for Saul as a whole—is why we are made to watch the parts of the journey where nothing happens. And the answer is that “nothing happens” constitutes an essential part of Jimmy McGill’s experience right now. Saul intends to make us sympathize with that emptiness.
I have gone through stretches in my life where I was awaiting a transformation, anticipating the next thing I would become. I suspect many of you have, too. I left a decent job in television when I was 25, with no clear idea of what I was going to do next. Over the next few years, I endured awful stand-up gigs, dalliances with ill-fated startup websites, a soul-sucking stint on the writing staff of a doomed HBO Sports comedy pilot, and other misfires. These are the stories I tell when people ask about that stretch of my life.
They’re not the stories that define that searching period for me, though. Instead, what I recall most vividly are the days where nothing happened. When there were no freelance commissions, no comedy shows on the calendar, no purpose. I remember calling up people to interview them for my little “geek culture” blog that nobody read, and as I dialed, I would feel sweat drip down my face—not because I was nervous, but because I was so desperate for the effort to yield anything of substance. I just wanted a respite from the numbing nothingness.
So does Jimmy McGill. Unlike us, he doesn’t know the specifics of his future life, but he’s aware that he has the potential to be something more than a no-account lawyer on the fringes of the Albuquerque legal community. The hardest part, especially for someone like Jimmy who thrives when he’s thinking on his feet, is enduring all the nothingness that takes place in the meantime.
Later in the Hummel figurine scene, after Jimmy’s client completes her 86-second journey to the sofa, she resumes her inordinately complex discussion of who will get which tchotchkes after she dies. “No matter what, I want the towheaded twins to go to Reverend Lawrence’s grandson,” she says. Jimmy immediately pushes back: “Don’t you mean Reverend Hanes? Lawrence’s grandson is going to get the lute-playing angel, because he was in the choir.” The scene pivots on this exchange. Until now, we have assumed that Jimmy is bored and maybe a bit disdainful, which is probably true. But he has also maintained his focus to such an extent that he knows this woman’s cockamamie estate plans even better than she does. Jimmy doesn’t succumb to the boredom, he overcomes it.
Think how differently the scene would play out if it had started later, with the client already seated on the sofa, nattering on about this and that figurine. Jimmy would still come off as an engaged and attentive lawyer, but we would have much less sense of the determined mental discipline he exerts to stay on task. We wouldn’t get to watch him fidget and struggle to maintain a professional air as that chair lift whirrred down the stairwell. More importantly, we wouldn’t experience that irritated anticipation ourselves. Suffering alongside Jimmy helps us understand Jimmy.
In her A.V. Club review of “Alpine Shepherd Boy,” the venerable Donna Bowman argues that a montage of meetings with Albuquerque kooks would have been a better fit here than the Hummel figurine scene. That is a defensible choice, and it would have been fun to watch. But before he got to the Hummel lady, Jimmy already encountered two amusing crazies: a right-winger who wants to secede from the United States and a dad who invented an unintentionally erotic potty-training aid. What more would we learn about Jimmy McGill if Better Call Saul had him roll his eyes at another handful of lunatics? The joke had already been made. A montage is what the viewer naturally desires here (which is likely one reason Gilligan et al. avoided it), but it would say nothing new.
Besides, a montage compresses time, which is a dishonest portrayal of Jimmy’s experience at this point in his story. Nothingness dilates time. It seems to fill your life with extra minutes of doubt and desperation. This is what Better Call Saul compels us to understand when it lingers on a ludicrous absence of activity. We have already seen, in Breaking Bad and in parts of Saul, how Jimmy/Saul responds to a swirling crisis. In scenes like this one, we get to see how our hero responds to idleness, which presents a distinct set of challenges. The Hummel scene is the sort of choice that TV creators are only able to make after they have the credibility of a Breaking Bad-type success under their belt. It thrills me that Better Call Saul’s producers use this freedom to make emotionally honest choices that may irritate us but nonetheless draw us closer to their main character.
Major life changes rarely occur with a bang. More often, they are slow transitions characterized by maddening stretches of inertia. Better Call Saul finds the beautiful misery in those lulls. You think it’s frustrating to wait for Jimmy McGill to transform into Saul Goodman? Imagine how Jimmy feels. But that’s the brilliance of this show: You don’t have to imagine it. You get to feel it for yourself.