It’s something of an understatement to call Better Call Saul a subtle show, but the label fits. Few American TV shows have had the boldness to fold their dramatic tension into small character moments, revelations and shifting power and moral relationships between characters, rather than telling plot-driven stories that turn on big moments of suspense. This is especially true for genre shows. Breaking Bad was remarkable in that it did both – it had the small moments and twists of character but it also had many big moments of action and monumental posing (who can forget Gustavo Fring marching into a hail of sniper bullets, or a thoroughly corrupted Walter White imploring professional criminals to “say his name”?). Better Call Saul has very little of that. Instead, we get equally powerful scenes such as Chuck McGill (who most analysts, myself included, had previously written off as the series’ villain) quietly explaining to Kim Wexler why Jimmy isn’t worthy of her faith. And Mike has a familiar face turn up to join him for breakfast one morning, re-aligning his own professional and moral trajectory. It’s partially momentum from Breaking Bad that makes some of these scenes powerful (particularly the latter), but Saul works best when it scrapes another layer of character insight from these complex and dynamic people the writers have created to explore morality and fate in the stark beauty of Albuquerque.
This episode starts with one of the most subtle scenes this peculiarly subtle show has ever assembled. Flashing back to the days before Jimmy attended the University of American Samoa (go landcrabs!) and was in the first stages of moving away from “Slippin’ Jimmy”, Chuck is hosting his prodigal brother for dinner, along with his hitherto-unseen wife Rebecca. The sequence plays out the way some of us who have been carefully observing the characters thus far might expect. Jimmy is a funny, charming guest, and Chuck’s wife is won over. Chuck himself remains wary and distant, and in the final shot of the sequence we get a hint of why, and perhaps of an important root of the animosity between them. Jimmy has left and the McGills are sitting in bed. After hearing his wife laugh at Jimmy’s jokes all night, Chuck tries one of his own, and it lands with a thud. As Rebecca turns to go to sleep, we linger on a shot of Chuck and are treated to yet another in a long line of fine acting moments from Michael McKean, staring ahead, the wheels turning in his mind, suggesting all manner of jealousies. It’s fairly obvious that Jimmy was always the more charming brother, the funnier one, the one people liked immediately, and Chuck’s personal appeal always faded a bit in his presence. From that root of jealousy (combined with the heavy revelation later about one of Jimmy’s more egregious acts) we can put together just about everything we need to know regarding why the brothers are estranged. In one short scene, Chuck’s character is, if not fully, at least partially rehabilitated.
In the “present day” timeline, Kim has almost, but not quite entirely, closed the door on her relationship with Jimmy. Considering that relationship is basically all that Jimmy has to live for, he’s getting increasingly desperate to somehow impress her and win back her faith, including putting up with the indignity of having been assigned a full-time “handler” to hold his hand through all of his duties. The irony of this is that Jimmy works best when he’s left alone, to his own devices. Operating under the stern, buttoned-down eye of a corporate drone, Jimmy wears a metaphorical electrified ankle bracelet and squirms with frustrated discomfort. The situation is clearly never going to work for him in the long run, but he has to keep his fingers in the door that Kim has nearly closed to him. Kim, for her part, being the resourceful and intelligent woman she is, is not content to let Jimmy or Chuck or Howard Hamlin (who, we now see, may be her greatest antagonist) dictate the course of her career. In a great pre-internet networking sequence, we see Kim operating her cell phones and post-it notes in a flurry of effort to draw in a big client for HHM. Her sensible logic is that if she brings in a big chunk of business for the firm, they can’t help but forgiver her for her association with Jimmy and restore her to a place of influence. She succeeds in getting a large client, but Howard is unconvinced. Even Chuck, now arguing on her behalf, can’t seem to crack Howard, whose ambivalence towards Kim is getting harder to hide. The intimation is that Howard feels humiliated by Kim not sharing her knowledge of Jimmy’s TV spot for the Sandpiper case and resents being cut out of the loop, so he’s punishing her with impunity. It’s not about how good or bad Kim is at her job – she’s clearly very good – it’s personal. Recall that last season Howard was ready to be nice to Jimmy and cut him some slack: that’s all gone now.
What happens near the end of the episode calls into question whether Kim and Jimmy have any future whatsoever. Jimmy has always been a bit embarrassing but somehow comes off as endearing in the end. But Chuck, coming into the office early to get some work done, sits Kim down for a quiet drink and tells her a story about he and Jimmy’s father that basically amounts to, “Look, Jimmy is charming, yes, but he’s also incredibly selfish and sometimes very unwise. He broke our own father’s heart, and mine, too. Don’t let him break yours. It’s not your fault. He seems like a nice guy, and sometimes he is, but don’t be fooled. I’m not a monster. Jimmy just doesn’t deserve my respect, or yours.” And then he offers to smooth things over with Howard so Kim can have her position back. Essentially, it shows that Chuck recognizes talent when he sees it (Kim is very sharp), sees that Howard is being petty, and also knows that no one in the loop should forget exactly what and who Jimmy really is.
For the past few episodes, Mike Ehrmantraut has essentially been the star of his own spin-off of the spin-off show. Quietly climbing the ranks of the criminal underworld to get enough money together to support his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, Mike’s morals are falling faster than his bankroll is rising. It bothers him, but Mike isn’t the sort who can let that bother him for very long. Practicality is the name of the game. After last week’s compromise that left him severely beaten in order to avoid having to commit murder, Mike is visited at breakfast by the head of the Salamanca family, the formidable Hector “Tio” Salamanca, one of the major characters from Breaking Bad and played wonderfully here again by Mark Margolis. Even though he was paralyzed and muted by a major stroke in Breaking Bad, Tio still managed to be one of the most effective and expressive characters on the show. Here, Margolis gets to play the “Mexican Gang-banger” (as Hank Schrader described him) as middle-aged but still healthy, oozing charm and appealing to Mike’s intelligence. Mike has sent Tuco to prison for assault, and Tio understands. “Best thing for him,” he agrees. But he also wants Mike to lie and forge evidence in order to make sure his nephew’s stay in prison is a short one. In return, he offers money and the promise of perhaps more work with his family. Tio sees the talent in Mike, treats him with respect, but makes sure Mike knows that his isn’t really a request. He could easily do away with the entire Ehrmantraut clan in one foul swoop and it wouldn’t bother him a bit. Mike, knowing that he’s now trapped, exudes frustration at now having to cope with his own moral choices being forced upon him, rather than left to his own inner compass. It’s perhaps what Mike always feared: being sucked in over his head into the whirlpool of gang violence. We all know where this is going, of course. For Mike now, all roads seem to be leading to Gustavo Fring.
And for Jimmy’s part, all roads seem to be leading to Saul Goodman, although he himself can’t quite admit it or accept it. He’s still clinging to the last vestiges of his own desperate dream: to be the man that Kim wants him to be. What he doesn’t realize is that Kim may now have lost faith in him, just as his brother did many years ago. The tragedy at the heart of this show is not that good characters go bad, but that characters simply can’t escape their fate, and their nature. It’s fascinating and intelligent TV.