I’m of two minds about the second episode of this second visit to Vince Gilligan’s Land of Enchantment. Which is only natural, since it seems to be moving in two different directions. The stylistic touches take us back to the kind of images and editing that will forever be associated with Breaking Bad—the style that set it apart and defined its cinematic take on serialized drama. But at the same time, this episode’s carefully illustrated themes chart a deliberate course away from BB’s arc of hubris and delusion. It may look like more of the (glorious, thrilling) same. But don’t be fooled. The road from Jimmy to Saul covers different territory than the road from Walter to Heisenberg.
Maybe that’s because Walter, in all of his seething self-importance, never learned to spin a yarn the way Jimmy does. Held at gunpoint, he goes from volubly confused (“Is there by any chance a Betsy Kettleman here? I’m not sure if this is a situation where I should or should not look you in the eye”) to volubly persuasive (“Why jump to the nuclear option?”) before his captor Tuco speaks a full sentence to him. (And when Tuco finally does, it’s a comment on that very volubility: “Wow, you got a mouth on you.”) The skateboarders, hogtied in the garage, waste no time identifying Jimmy as the mastermind behind “punking my abuelita,” as Tuco puts it, and next thing you know Nacho and No Doz are standing with their compadre over the three co-conspirators in the desert, ready to exact retribution for this disrespect. That’s when Jimmy pivots on a dime in a desperate attempt to use the crew’s paranoia about threats to their drug business against them. “I’m special agent Jeffrey Steel, FBI!” he blusters. “I’m undercover, I’m the tip of the spear! Releasing me would be the smart move!”
Nacho (sharp, self-possessed Michael Mando) isn’t buying it. When Jimmy can’t come up with anything specific about his “investigation” (“It’s Title 21, Schedules A through D including Part B, that’s what we call it down at the bureau … Operation Kingbreaker”), Nacho quickly busts him back down to the truth: He’s a lawyer. “Croaking a lawyer is bad business,” he convinces Tuco, interrupting the latter’s celebration of his coronation. And besides, brandishing the “James M. McGill—A Lawyer You Can Trust” matchbook, Nacho now has a hold over him—and it won’t be long before he starts to squeeze.
Guns, knives, murderous drug dealers posing amidst the desert scrub, frightened suburbanites pleading for their lives—it’s a scene that played out multiple times in Breaking Bad. But what happens next is entirely new. Jimmy’s cut loose, free to go, and the skateboarders are going to pay the ultimate price for calling Tuco’s abuelita a “crazy old biz-natch.” (“Extremely poor judgment,” as Jimmy put it back in the house.) But instead of thanking his lucky Nachos and saving his skin, Jimmy interrupts the assassination to weave a tale calculated to change Tuco’s mind—the skateboarders’ poor mother, working her fingers to the bone for rich people, heartbroken over her beloved but foolish sons. If Tuco lets them go, everyone will recognize that he’s “tough, but fair.” “You’re all about justice,” Jimmy wheedles, painting a brand new self-image for the crazy-eyed gangster—one that dovetails ingeniously with the “king” label that so pleased Tuco earlier.
And as Jimmy invites Tuco to “talk proportionality” and discover through dialogue what level of injury will compensate for the wrong the skateboarders committed, the scene reminds me of nothing so much as the wonderful episode in Genesis where Abraham haggles with God over how many righteous men need to be found in Sodom to save the city. Just like Jimmy, Abraham flatters God’s justice to turn him away from retribution (“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”). Power isn’t about indulging your angry whims. Showing everyone who’s boss means acting like a real ruler, one who makes decisions rationally instead of rashly, one who is “the man” because he acts in a way “that’s fair, that’s just.”
During this whole exchange, I was screaming at Jimmy to cut his losses and leave the idiot skateboarders to the vultures. This is no noble sacrifice, like the times Walt stuck his neck out for Jesse; the skaters mean nothing to Jimmy and Jimmy means nothing to them. This is risk for no reason. Except that this is what separates Jimmy McGill from Walter White. Jimmy really does want to stand for something. After all, when push came to shove out there in the desert, he didn’t need a rehearsed speech or Dutch courage. “I just talked you down from a death sentence to six months probation,” he tells the boarders as he helps them to the emergency room. “I am the best lawyer ever.” In the ensuing montage, he goes back to public defender work: $700 a trial, vending-machine coffee, Roy Scheider impressions in the bathroom mirror, every once in a while a minor victory over the prosecutor’s monotonous drone of “petty with a prior.” “I’m not backsliding. This isn’t Slippin’ Jimmy,” he insists to Chuck, even as he begs his brother to take off the space blanket that’s around his shoulders because in his drunkenness Jimmy forgot to leave his phone outside. To Jimmy, the space blanket is a guilt trip, a pointed reminder that Chuck can’t fight for justice anymore and that Jimmy isn’t up to his standards.
And so when Nacho, inevitably, comes to that boiler room and asks Jimmy for a favor, Jimmy doesn’t cave and tell him what he wants to hear. His integrity, astoundingly, is what he chooses to cling to. “I wasn’t going to rip them off,” he says of the Kettlemans, when Nacho demands to take over the shakedown scheme he intuited from Jimmy’s desert babblings about corrupt treasurers and million-dollar embezzlements. “I just wanted their business. … I’m a lawyer, not a criminal.” But unfortunately, much like his skater cohorts, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. “I made a mistake,” he confesses, and it’s that weakness—not his tarnished and battered ideals—that sets the course for what lies ahead.
- That’s a long time to hold that shot of Jimmy wincing as Tuco’s crew breaks the skaters’ legs. What’s his takeaway lesson: “There will be consequences for how I handle myself,” or “Huh, that Tuco really enjoys hurting people”?
- I yield to no one in my admiration for Michelle MacLaren, nor in my happiness that she’s gotten tapped for high-profile work based on her Breaking Bad artistry. But my mixed feelings about episode two stem from the familiarity of—and even possible overindulgence in—some of those tropes. That montage of Jimmy The Public Defender, for example, is surprisingly lengthy and repetitive—even though I like many individual moments within it, like the trick with the revolving courtroom doors and the the sideways-coffee-cup payoff (roll the dice that often, it’s bound to happen). Same can be said for the long, expressionistic sequence at the bar with the cleavage and the umbrella drinks and the snapping breadsticks. If it’s a conscious counterbalance of continuity for the bracing novelty of the themes I wrote about above, in my view it’s an overly aggressive one.
- When Jimmy asks for milk for his coffee, Chuck gives him a “you know I don’t have milk” look. I couldn’t find any obvious link between milk and electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Is that look just because Jimmy was supposed to bring some and (in his drunkenness) forgot? And when Jimmy badgers Chuck into taking off the blanket, it seems that he is making a statement about Chuck’s condition—namely, that he doesn’t believe in it. Does Jimmy think that Chuck’s Faraday-cage existence is all some elaborate judgment directed at him?
- Jimmy brings a stuffed animal for the woman who hands out the public-defender assignments. If you check the top of the filing cabinets behind her, it’s clear he (and maybe others) have played that card before.
- “Everything you’ve told me is privileged.” “You rat, you die.” “And that, too, yes.”