God, it’s good to be back in Albuquerque.
That wasn’t the way I was planning to start this review, but after Better Call Saul’s premiere episode, the feeling overwhelms me. Albuquerque is more than a setting, more than a fond reminder of the glory days of Breaking Bad. It’s Vince Gilligan’s muse. The flatness, the curves of the cul-de-sacs, the strip malls, the looming empty sky. It’s a place where desperation lies under a thin layer of xeriscaping. Through Gilligan’s eyes, Albuquerque is less of an oasis than a last chance saloon. Beyond is the wasteland, the buzzards, the war of every man against every man.
Albuquerque is all the more welcome because Gilligan and Peter Gould, the co-writers of “Uno,” make us wait for it. The episode starts with a black-and-white flash-forward to a Cinnabon in an Omaha mall (as foretold in BB’s “Granite State”), where the man we know as Saul Goodman wears a visor, portions out dough, and feels his blood freeze solid when a blank-faced, no-neck man stares at him. It’s a gorgeous opening, full of telling and well-observed detail (Saul’s bald spot, the spacers used to position buns on baking sheets, the little three-wheeled dolly that gets kicked under the giant mixing bowl to move it) and serendipitous shots (the wide-angle view from the mall’s second level, the escalator’s POV). But when the color kicks in and the great state of New Mexico takes the stage, you remember that it wasn’t just Walt and Jesse and Hank and the goddamn minerals, Marie, that made Breaking Bad so mesmerizing. It was also the baleful beauty of their stomping grounds, the place they paced like rats in a maze, trying to find the lever that would render it habitable.
“Uno” has a lot of backstory to set up, and at times the seams show as Gilligan and Gould seek the best way to disclose and withhold. We follow early-2000s Saul—known in those pre-scumbag days by his real name, Jimmy McGill—as he fails to win an acquittal for his douchebag teenage clients (“near Honors students, all”) on a charge of breaking into a funeral home, sawing off a corpse’s head, and having sex with it. (“Trespassing? Bit of a reach, don’t you think, Dave?” Saul chides the prosecuting attorney.) Poorly-compensated public defender work is leaving him so far in a financial hole that he trudges back to the courthouse for another validation stamp on his parking stub rather than fork over $3 to an unsympathetic Mike Ehrmantraut (!). Yet back in his office, which doubles as the boiler room of a nail salon (“Cucumber water for customer only!”) he tears up a $26,000 check and storms over to the firm that sent it, Hamlin Hamlin & McGill. Seems they’re acting as if Chuck McGill is still on the payroll, despite some ailment that has forced him to take a leave of absence, and Jimmy thinks it’s a ploy to deprive his brother (Michael McKean) of his rightful share of the practice—$17 million, by Jimmy’s rough initial estimate.
Chuck’s place requires visitors to leave their keys and phone in the mailbox and ground themselves before entering; it appears he’s suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. He lives by lantern-light, pounds out letters to Finnish researchers on a manual typewriter, keeps the groceries Jimmy brings in a ice-filled cooler, and reimburses him for the Financial Times with cash out of a coffee canister. Gently, he deflects Jimmy’s pleas to demand a buyout from his partners, objecting that the firm would probably have to liquidate to raise that much cash, putting more than a hundred people out of work. Besides, he’s going to get better and go back to work. Oh, and it might cause confusion that Jimmy is using the name McGill in his practice’s name and advertising. “How about Vanguard Law? Or Gibraltor?” Chuck suggests helpfully.
It’s clear that neither Jimmy’s ambulance-chasing (in the form of soliciting folks whose connections to crime make the newspaper) nor his connections to Chuck McGill are going to pay his overdue bills. No, he’s going to have to go back to his days as Slippin’ Jimmy, the Cicero kid who raked in cash by pratfalling on patches of ice every winter. He enlists two skateboarders whose awkward attempt at a shakedown he had avoided earlier, and goes after Betsy Kettleman, the county treasurer’s wife, whose route to pick up her kids at school intersects with a blind corner, a video camera, street surfing beardos, and convenient witnesses at an outdoor cafe. Then Slippin’ Jimmy McGill plans to swoop in and offer his legal surfaces to the distressed vehicular assailant. But the station wagon roars off instead of stopping, to the dismay of the skateboarders but not Jimmy, whose eyes turn into dollar signs at the prospect of defending a felony hit-and-run case. If only the driver weren’t an elderly Hispanic woman rather than the boat-owning suburbanite Jimmy targeted, and if only the boarders’ freelance demand for “righteous dinero” didn’t take them into her home, where minutes later Tuco (!!!) meets Jimmy at the door with a gun.
The maneuvers and info-dumps necessary to get us to this, the point of departure for this series, are probably as adroitly handled as one could hope for. Yes, the scene in Chuck’s no-electricity-allowed hideaway is coy almost to the point of frustration, but look how beautifully Gilligan and Gould handle Jimmy’s decision to quit chasing the ambulances and start dispatching them himself. The scene where the treasurer meets with Jimmy at the diner about the $1.6 million “accounting discrepancy,” culminating in the slow-motion moment where his wife stops him from signing the retainer, perfectly illustrates the fragility of Jimmy’s practice. And it’s bookended not only by Jimmy’s repeated references to combing the newspaper for potential clients, but also by the last-straw moment where the treasurer and his wife show up at Hamlin Hamlin & McGill.
“Uno” reacquaints us with a character whose spiel is as slick and sludgy as motor oil, and shows us that his paranoia and misanthropy come from years of being kicked around. He’s desperate to be the one doing the kicking for a change—and lucky for us, there are few things funnier and more pathetic than Bob Oedenkirk kicking somebody or something. (In this episode alone: skateboarders and an unlucky trash can.) Inside Tuco’s house, there’s a rich but dangerous vein of untapped cash potential. What we see from “Uno” is that he doesn’t have to stoop down very much farther to pick it up.
- The match between the cold open’s shots of Cinnabon paraphernalia, and the post-titles shots of the court reporter’s 44-ounce soda cup and the prosecutor’s unicorn doodle, establishes immediately that we are back in good hands structure-wise. The way Gilligan observes this landscape and its denizens—specific, level-headed, wry, but refraining from wrangling the viewer into a position of judgmental distance—always reminds me of Alexander Payne.
- That’s “Address Unknown” by the Ink Spots playing over that Omaha mall sequence. And that’s a world-class wingnut pander in the commercial Saul watches on videotape: “Do you feel doomed? Have opponents of freedom tried to intimidate you?”
- Jimmy’s assault on the Hamlin Hamlin & McGill conference room is scored to dialogue from Network: “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and I won’t have it! You will atone!” It’s a speech made by über-capitalist Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty) to crusading news anchor Howard Beale about the unreality of such constructs as nations, ideologies, and justice, and the primacy of corporations. I don’t think Jimmy gets the irony. (Indeed, missing the point of famous movie quotes has the prospect of becoming a J.M. McGill signature.)
- What are we to make of golden boy lawyer Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian)? Somehow I doubt that his advice to Jimmy (“You can get so caught up in the idea of winning that you forget to listen to your heart”) is wholly altruistic.
- As we learned from Walt’s Pontiac Aztek, a man’s shitty car says so much about him. In this case, Jimmy’s Suzuki Esteem with the mismatched door also says a lot about the idiot skateboarders. “The only way that entire car’s worth $500 is if there’s a $300 hooker sitting in it!”
- The fatal flaw in Jimmy’s scheme, in fact, is that the boarders are way too stupid to trust as partners. “How did you find us?” they ask when Jimmy shows up at the skatepark. “I know, eerie, right?” he deadpans.
- “I’m sure Howard would gladly pay the cost for new matchbooks and so on.”