The second episode of Better Call Saul had some of the pacing problems that were an issue in the season premiere, but still manages to carve out a unique path through the world of Breaking Bad’s Albuquerque. The focus here seems to be on establishing “Jimmy” as a talker, as someone who uses his mouth and his wits to get out of situations, just as he did in Breaking Bad so well. Here we get a primitive version of the sorts of intense encounters in the desert that would play such a big role in the parent show, as well as re-introducing us to one of its early villains. The most intriguing new character is a polite, intelligent, well-spoken Mexican Gangster, just the sort of guy who could lead Jimmy McGill into a life of defending his fellow criminals.
Oh, and this episode is also the one that, despite his run of failures and busts in the courtroom, Jimmy McGill realizes he’s the “best lawyer in the world”.
It’s so refreshing to see Tuco Salamanca again. In the early days of Breaking Bad, before it really stretched into international business conspiracies and Shakespearean machinations, Tuco was a formidable villain. Tuco has that quiet, polite demeanour of a good little boy around his elders (here, his Grandmother) but he’s also a bit of a dunderheaded idiot with a flaming hot temper. In later years it would be fuelled by methamphetamine, but here it just seems to be a character trait.
In any case, Tuco’s presence reminds us that the labyrinth of criminal activity in Albuquerque is very much in place, long before the beginning of Breaking Bad itself. This was always an important aspect of Walter White’s journey, as through the first few seasons of that show, he peeled back layer after layer of organization in his bid to circumvent it. The running theme of Walter’s naive lack of awareness of both the extent and the power of the drug empire in his area gave a tense, twisting energy to those first seasons. It would be unfair to expect the same of Better Call Saul, especially since we, as an audience, know how things work out for him. But Saul was already deeply embedded in the criminal empire at the beginning of the parent show. Here, he’s on a path of discovery, but his acumen and mental flexibility set him apart from Walter White, and partially explains why he was able to succeed where the arrogant, inflexible White failed.
The show opens with the two red headed skateboarders oozing disrespect and hipster idiocy all over Tuco’s grandmother, seemingly oblivious to the coiled spring of rage hiding behind Tuco’s impassive eyes. He resembles nothing so much as a tiger, studying his prey with a detached interest bordering on boredom. When Jimmy shows up at the door and is brought in, he sees instantly what the situation is and does what he always does: starts talking. An avalanche of verbiage ensues, with Tuco impassively listening before summing up Jimmy’s character in his characteristically terse way, “You got a mouth on you.”
It’s his mouth that comes in handy again when Tuco takes him and the Ginger Skaters out into the desert for a classic Breaking Bad encounter. Here we see that Tuco is still Tuco, especially when his blood is up. An insult to one of his relatives, particularly an older relative, is something he can’t countenance. Tuco, of course, would rather just kill the three men and howl at the moon. Tuco loves violence, and takes such pleasure in it that even to save the lives of everyone involved, Jimmy recognizes that some violence in this situation is inevitable. Jimmy uses his best asset – his mouth – to appeal to Tuco’s ego and fury, acknowledging that the Gingers are indeed in the wrong, and do deserve punishment. The only question is how much.
Jimmy does an amazing verbal dance in this sequence, under extreme pressure. But his instincts as a lawyer kick in, and he, crucially, doesn’t judge Tuco and his gang. He’s so used to defending those who have committed some horrible acts and are indeed guilty, that he suspends any judgement and deals with them on their terms. This is his crucial skill, and one that repeatedly saves his life, right up until the end of Breaking Bad. Jimmy/Saul is a realist. Whereas Walter White lived in a world of ego, delusion and fantasy.
The crux of the argument comes down to this: killing or otherwise maiming the Gingers would only invite police attention. Much better to wound them in a such a way that they’re aware of the severity of their crime and scared enough not to press charges. Jimmy talks Tuco down to breaking one leg on each brother, a wound that will heal in about six months. The idiot Gingers, of course, are living in the same delusional space later occupied by Walter White, seemingly unaware of the danger they face. They spit at Jimmy as they’re taken away in agony, “You’re the worst lawyer in the world!” To which Jimmy replies, with deserved pride, “I just talked you down from a death sentence to six months in the hospital. I’m the BEST lawyer in the world!”
Reinvigorated by the experience in the desert rather than petrified of it, and now convinced he can talk his way out of anything, Jimmy dives back into round after round of cases at the courthouse, collecting his meagre compensation as a public defender and jousting with parking lot attendant Mike Ehrmantraut.
The other major sequence in this second episode deepens and broadens the relationship between Jimmy and his brother Chuck, still played with amazing subtlety and restraint by Michael McKean. The relationship between those two brothers continues to be the emotional heart of the show, and I think we can look forward to exploring the loving, gentle bond between these two guys as the series goes on. It’s vitally important for Better Call Saul to have a relationship like that if it’s ever going to be able to hit emotional notes not touched in Breaking Bad. Just look at how Jimmy convinces Chuck to take off his tinfoil blanket: the love and respect is almost palpable, and there wasn’t a relationship like it in Breaking Bad, except possibly between Hank and Marie Schrader.
The episode ends with the entrance of another great Mexican character, “Nacho” played by Michael Mando. Nacho seems to be occupying some of the dramatic space previously occupied by characters like Gustavo Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad. Rational, intelligent professionals, operating within the world of crime. Nacho isn’t quite up to the intellectual level of a Gus Fring, but he’s calm, well spoken and clearly smart enough to see that Jimmy is more valuable as an ally than in a hole in the middle of the desert. He visits Jimmy’s sad little office and puts an offer on the table to assist in a serious crime, for a percentage of the take as a “finder’s fee”. While Jimmy balks, it’s clear we haven’t seen the last of Nacho, and that Jimmy will eventually evolve into the kind of lawyer who knows the criminal world as well as any gangster.
To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, he’s taken his first step into a new and larger world.