Prequels are constrained by the starting point of another story. Even the best of them have less freedom than the original creations to which they are appended. We know what happens down the line, so it’s tougher to work in surprises. And one of the reasons Breaking Bad was such a monumental experience is that we felt, week to week, like it could go anywhere. A lot of people were afraid that Better Call Saul would necessarily turn out less rich, less involving, less breathtaking, because of this fact.
Less breathtaking it may be, if what takes your breath away are unpredictable twists and turns. But Better Call Saul is staking a claim, in these first episodes, to telling a story that has independent worth and integrity, within the bounded bubble of the prequel format. The strategy is simplicity itself, and hardly original: “There’s more to this beloved minor character from Original Story than meets the eye.” It’s in the fleshing-out of that “more” that the quality of the prequel hangs in the balance. And what we see this week in “Nacho” is that the story of Saul Goodman begins, surprisingly, with Jimmy McGill trying to save not only his hide, but also his soul.
We’re dropped into the Vietnamese nail salon, where Jimmy roams freely after hours when he can’t sleep. At first it’s unclear whether Jimmy has decided that, as Nacho put it to him last week, he’s “in the game.” He flicks open that matchbook cover, but instead of calling Nacho he calls Kim, one of the Hamlin Hamlin & McGill attorneys. Not for phone sex this time (“quality PG phone conversation, PG-13 at worst”), but to awkwardly drop the hint that the Kettlemans ought to watch their backs. “The guy’s probably a target!” he proffers apropos of nothing in particular. “Somebody could get bad, bad ideas… his whole family might be in danger.” But all he succeeds in doing is making Kim think Jimmy’s working some kind of scheme; it doesn’t seem like she’s going to call out the cavalry to protect her clients. So Jimmy, muttering “I’m no hero,” drives to a remote payphone and calls in an anonymous warning to the Kettlemans through a cardboard-tube voice disguising device—which, hilariously, he’s forced to abandon when they can’t understand him.
When the Kettlemans disappear the next day, their house trashed and their cars still in the driveway, Jimmy leaves a series of desperate voice mails for Nacho—“I sincerely want to help you de-escalate your situation, legally and otherwise”—to try to keep the Kettlemans alive without giving the impression any ratting-out has occurred. But it’s too late. The neighbors saw Nacho’s van in the cul-de-sac the last couple of nights, the police have picked him up, and he wants Jimmy for his lawyer—or at least he wants to warn Jimmy of the consequences if it turns out this is some sort of a setup. Because Nacho never got around to shaking the Kettlemans down. Whatever happened to them, he had nothing to do with it.
This is where Jimmy’s dogged attempt to be a good lawyer starts forming chaotic swirls around his self-preservation instinct, which leans more toward the craven than the courageous. He can’t accede to the police’s insistence that he turn against his client, but it’s not defense-lawyer posturing; he’s honestly trying to stop the police from barking up the wrong tree. So almost against his will, he gets a chance to confront the inconvenient facts of the case. On a tour of the kids’ ransacked bedrooms that Kim and the police intend to be heart-tugging, he sees that the little girl’s doll—the one she’s holding in all the pictures—isn’t on the shelf with its accessories. If she has the doll, maybe she wasn’t dragged out kicked and screaming. “Ipso facto,” Jimmy tells Kim with a somewhat random legal flair, “maybe the Kettlemans kidnapped themselves.”
His client’s suspicious activities and his own far-fetched theories aren’t the only things standing in his way. There’s a roadblock named Mike Ehrmantraut, whose barrier Jimmy rashly circumvented (“Screw you, geezer!”) on his way to the crime scene. But when the police try to use him as a threat to get Jimmy to turn, Mike sees it all clearly. In Jimmy’s world, everybody is either trying to get away with something or holding a grudge, and he knows Mike is the latter. But in Mike’s world, things just are what they are. Jimmy owes him stamps and failed to give him respect, but Jimmy’s also telling the truth about Nacho’s innocence. Mixing up the two situations serves no purpose.
As Kim and Jimmy confer by the Kettleman’s backyard pool, the camera frames them against the desert hills. But it’s not until Mike unexpectedly stands up for Jimmy that this shot becomes more than scenery. A reminiscence of a case back in Philly, a stick-figure decal on the rear window of that Mercury Sable wagon, and a long hot trudge later, the seeming incompatibility between Nacho’s unrealized intentions and the Kettlemans’ vanishing is resolved. And, not coincidentally, Hamlin Hamlin & McGill have themselves a pretty steep uphill climb on that embezzlement defense.
Last week in the desert, Jimmy stood up unexpectedly for justice. But even though the situation was extreme, it isn’t materially different from the stands we see him take as a public defender. Like the skaters, his clients are mostly scumbag idiot opportunists who would never learn their lesson no matter how many times they were hauled in. That doesn’t mean, though, that jaded prosecutors and scandalized juries should just dispose of them without a second glance. “Why don’t you quit while you’re ahead?” Mike asks him in the stairwell after Jimmy demands to be believed in addition to set free, and that’s certainly the question that separates him from someone without principles. Against the monotonous “petty with a prior” boilerplate of the system, Jimmy insists on telling their individual stories of sadsack incompetence. And this week he even gets through, forcing the prosecutor to recognize a distinction between Jimmy’s clients and a DUI manslaughter case.
This case is different. There’s no justice for Nacho Vargas without the truth. And there’s nobody with any reason to look further than the length of their own noses for the truth except Jimmy. Sure, it’s the only way to get a murderous gang to call off their rat hunt. But my point is that it’s not a step down the road to perdition. Quite the opposite. Of all the possible stops between Jimmy “Disappointment To His Family” McGill and Saul “Better Call” Goodman, James M. “Crusader for Justice and Truth” McGill surely counts as one of the most unexpected. I’m as intrigued to fill in the timeline as I was when that pink bear showed up bobbing in the Whites’ pool. Which means that BCS has already gone where few prequels have managed to go before.
- Nice mirroring at the start of the cold-open flashback, with Chuck dropping off his keys and phone this time, before visiting his ne’er-do-well brother in the lockup. And I wonder if we’ll find out both what this “everything you’re involved with” is that Chuck insists Jimmy give up, and what this “simple Chicago sunroof” might be that could get him property damage, assault, and a sex offender charge.
- Jimmy’s every effort to head off disaster, from the paper-towel-tube voice changer to the coins he repeatedly drops and chases at the pay phone, is an exercise in futility. But when he sets off across the desert to find the Kettlemans at their campsite, he moves with the relentlessness of somebody with no other options.
- Hey cops, don’t try to rope Mike Ehrmantraut into your scheme. He might have been on board until you patronized him by asking him to “help us do some good.”
- Jimmy’s misplaced movie quote of the day is “Here’s Johnny!”, which is Carson in the cold open but becomes The Shining when he terrifies the Kettlemans by screaming it as he unzips their tent flap.
- Gorgeous shot through the frosted cucumber-water carafe after the titles. And how about the abruptly truncated Video Toaster effects on those titles, huh?
- “I’ll take an Edible Arrangement as a sorry, heavy on the pineapple.” Jimmy’s got the wrong end of the stick again—pineapple are the baby’s-breath of the Edible Arrangement, pure filler. Insist on more strawberries, man!
- “Only two things I know about Albuquerque: Bugs Bunny should have taken a left turn there, and give me a hundred tries, I’ll never be able to spell it.”