Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Michael Mando as Nacho Vargas
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Michael Mando as Nacho Vargas
Photo: Warrick Page (AMC/Sony Pictures Television)
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A key tension on Better Call Saul stems from the characters’ positions as insiders or outsiders. Chuck was the ultimate legal insider, and he spent a frankly insane amount of energy trying to keep Jimmy on the outside. Even when Jimmy was part of HHM, or later dealing with HHM as a full-fledged member of another firm, Chuck had to make sure everyone knew he wasn’t in the inner sanctum, not really in the same profession at all. Then when Jimmy and Kim struck out on their own, building their own practices, they embraced that position of outsider. But that’s an precarious place to live. Outsiders don’t enjoy the same security as insiders; much less flows to you through the institutional structure. You have to hustle for everything you wind up getting.

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And therein lies the problem. You build yourself a home, and then you find yourself inside it. Turns out it wasn’t your position in somebody else’s firm that was trapping you. It was the very notion of a firm — a practice — a professional identity. The ditch you dig to get the juice flowing becomes the bed you have to lay in. Or maybe the grave where you lay forever.

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There’s a lovely Aristotelian unity of time to the structure of this episode, or at least until the last act. We begin moments after “50% off” ended, with ants swarming Jimmy’s sadly-discarded ice cream cone, and Jimmy nervously eyeing the gun stuck between the front seats of Nacho’s car. He meets with Lalo and gets that wad of cash (“seven thousand … nine hundred … twenty … five?” Jimmy bullshits through mental math, underestimating severely what a drug lord might be willing to pay). Next morning he’s at the lockup prepping Domingo for his starring role in Lalo’s plan to set up Gus, and when Hank Schrader (HANK!) and Steven Gomez (STEVE!) show up to squeeze his client, he swoops in to stage-manage the little play. The DEA’s willingness to walk away, and demands for tangible results, lead to some tense moments and improvisation, but ultimately Jimmy manages to carve out a good deal for Domingo — something Lalo couldn’t be bothered to care about. After reporting the box office receipts to producer Lalo (interrupting his dirt track time) and finding out that his fee was more in the nature of a retainer (nothing good comes of a retainer on this show), Nacho drops him off at the same spot, with a mound of ants dismantling the decayed remains of the cone. Twenty-four hours from “Jimmy can be his own boss, for a treat” to “when you’re in, your in.”

Overlapping with the ice-cream bookends is another repetition — in fact, taken together, they form a synchysis. In the middle of the 24-hours of Jimmy’s Salamanca gang journey, he comes home to find Kim on the balcony, waving a beer at him. She’s looking forward to a day when her interns are taking care of Mesa Verde and she gets to devote all her energy to where she can do some good, not just protect the interests of the powerful. But Rich demands her presence in Tucumcari where a homeowner named Acker (Barry Corbin!) is the lone holdout blocking the construction of the planned call center. After delivering an ultimatum and getting summarily ejected from the property, Kim comes back later than night, trying to make it possible for Acker to have a win while satisfying her bosses. But she can’t lift herself out of the structure that employs her, that she’s embedded in, that renders her unquestionably Acker’s adversary — no matter what private gestures of solidarity and humanity she makes. Working within the system means you end up driving the steamroller that crushes the little people. And at the end of that second day (in the middle of which Jimmy has been dropped back by the cone), Kim comes home to beers on a balcony with Jimmy. Twenty-four hours from toasting justice, to flinging bottles at the parking lot like antisocial teenagers.

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And we’re not quite done with the reflections. Nacho’s father shows up at Scarface Apartments, where he’s reluctantly welcomed inside by his son who is none too proud, in the moment, of his giant modernist art or barely-dressed lady friends. The elder Varga has gotten an offer for the shop, more than it’s worth, and he knows Nacho is behind it. “If you want to run, run,” he throws it back in Nacho’s face, “but me? I will not run away.” The next night, Kim is out in the New Mexico desert trying to get Acker to vacate the premises, also by offering more than her firm would want her to give — their maximum offer, extra help finding a new place, even her assistance in moving. She gets vulnerable, recounting how her mom used to roust them in the middle of the night, one step ahead of the landlord, barefoot in the cold, to show that she understands his attachment to his home. “If we’d found a house, I’d never have wanted to leave,” she admits. But it doesn’t matter how humane Kim and Nacho’s motives might be. Both of their targets respond by digging in. Nobody likes to be managed and herded, even for their own good. They’ll chew their own legs off rather than succumb to the trap.

Right now it looks like all our main characters are bought and paid for, chained to their masters — Kim to her meal ticket Mesa Verde, Jimmy to Lalo Salamanca, Mike to Gustavo Fring, and Nacho (uneasily) to both sides of the Eladio operation. We can see how they chafe under those unhappy obligations. What wiggle room will they try to create for themselves? How will they try to protect those they’re putting in danger? And whose reaction to their powerlessness — from broken beer bottles to broken arms — will rebound on them the hardest?

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Stray observations:

  • Love the ant visuals in the cold open, but the squishy-crunchy sound effects are ewwwwwwww.
  • Leave it to Jimmy to punch up Lalo’s idea of using Domingo to sicc the feds on Gus. He creates a whole theatrical experience, complete with surprise twists. Krazy-8 is no slouch as an actor, either, nailing his lines (with Jimmy listening to his monologue at the end of the scene like an anxious director in the wings) and rhubarbing his way through the staged conflict in front of the DEA.
  • It’s in that elaboration, too, that Jimmy tries to find a little room to protect Domingo. He insists to Hank and Steve that Domingo has to be their personal confidential informant (“you don’t pass him around like a venereal disease”). If Krazy-8 runs into any trouble, Jimmy has a direct line to the DEA to get him out of it. And to Lalo, Jimmy insists that this private CI arrangement means Domingo can’t be thought of as a snitch. To Lalo’s incredulous question “what do you care?”, Jimmy answers with rare honesty: “He’s my client; I’d like to keep him alive.”
  • The only thing Nacho can do to help Gus is to tell him about Lalo’s plan and what the feds now know. But Gus can’t change the drops or even retrieve his money; anything he does different will alert Lalo to the existence of a leak. He’s going to be out a bundle of cash, and worse — seemingly unbeknownst to Gus, somebody will have to get arrested or Domingo’s deal is off. And if he’s out enough cash — if the heat cuts into the cartel’s earnings — Lalo will get exactly what he wants, a chance to argue to Don Eladio that Gus is a liability.
  • When Hank complains that Marie (MARIE!) makes him take expired yogurt out to the trash the moment the clock strikes midnight, Steve reveals that he once ate an expired can of vanilla frosting “and I’m still here.”
  • Before Mike unloads on the unfortunate young men who see him as an easy mark, he demands that the bartender take a postcard of the Sydney Opera House out of his line of sight — an indication that his guilt and anger over Werner Ziegler (who talked about his engineer father helping to build that structure) is taking its toll.
  • “I’m gonna spread my legs like this. To finish me off, why don’t you give me a swift kick in the balls?”
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Donna descends from her ivory tower every year or two to recap any TV show Vince Gilligan decides to set in Albuquerque.

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