Better Call Saul Season 2, Episode 6:

Changing Masks

Though it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (there are too few female characters to meet that very specific bar), Better Call Saul is, in its way, a very feminist show. Not just because there’s a strong woman at (or near) the centre of the drama (Kim Wexler), but the way she is portrayed. With each subsequent episode, she’s been given more complexity, more facets and more inner conflict than many female characters get on American TV, and almost none of it is about her romantic relationships. “Almost” is the key word, for to have her completely cut off from that experience would, actually, make her less than human and make the show less than feminist. Kim’s love for Jimmy (it’s love: there’s no doubt about that) is not what defines her. It motivates her no more, and no less, than Jimmy’s love for her motivates him. If anything, she’s the one who sees their situation more clearly and acts with caution, but not too much caution, as this episode shows. In other words, while she knows that her relationship with this goofy, charming rogue might not lead her to good places, there are times when she just says, “Screw it” and calls him up for some fun. The fact that Jimmy and Kim play brother and sister when they’re carrying off their scams is completely appropriate. They’re very much like kissin’ cousins who grew up together. They hatch plans together, have a secret language and secret rituals, and giggle uproariously when they’re successful. And, yes, they also have sex, although that’s never shown and only implied, a wise choice for character building but a bold and original one for modern quality TV.

Kim’s choices define the course of Jimmy’s life in this episode, and she’s facing some difficult ones. Howard Hamlin clearly will never forgive her for withholding information about Jimmy’s TV ad: that’s made abundantly clear in the anti-Sorkin “power walk” near the beginning of this latest episode. Carried out in complete silence, the looks on their faces tell us everything we need to know. The way Howard slips on his “happy mask” as they approach their clients is a masterstroke of understatement: a veritable lesson in the art of “show, don’t tell”. Kim is a very good lawyer: better than Howard will ever give her the chance to be. Luckily for her, she’s spotted in an early trial scene by a partner in another, competing law firm, who subsequently asks her out to lunch and offers her a job. For Kim, having built her whole career around HHM, this presents something of a conundrum, but so much has changed for her, so fast, that she carefully considers the offer over drinks at a bar called “Forque”. (Which later becomes the source of a great pun, when she phones Jimmy to say she’s spotted a mark and is about to stick a fork in him and turn him over.)

(Full disclosure: I’ve been to that bar many times, sitting right where Kim sits in these scenes. Several other comics scholars will know of a legendary, and quite deadly, green cocktail known as “The She Hulk” that had its genesis at Forque. I have not, however, spotted any scam artists there.)

Jimmy — sweet, lovable and dangerous Jimmy — has of late been launching a war of attrition on Kim’s silent treatment, wearing her down with daily phone calls in which he sings songs from musicals as her wake-up call. “Tomorrow, we start on The Carpenters’ catalogue,” he says after singing a tune from South Pacific. Kim is finally charmed enough by this guy to call him back, but only when she has something they can both do together, namely scam a philandering idiot she spots from the bar. Kim and Jimmy leave Forque with each other, and a cheque made out to “Ice Station Zebra Associates,” which longtime Breaking Bad fans will recognize as Saul Goodman’s holding company.

The next morning, she tells him about the job offer and calls him out on his recent choices, charging him with accepting the job in Santa Fe “because of me”. We, the audience, know that’s true, and so does Jimmy, but he doesn’t admit it, because (we’ll never tire of saying it), he loves her. Which means, in the truest sense of that word, he wants what’s best for her and puts her needs above his. He knows this new job would be a great opportunity for her, so he paints his own position (which in fact is awful and he would quit tomorrow if he could, right down to choosing to sleep at the old nail salon rather than his opulent corporate apartment) in the most positive light. It gives her something to think about (she doesn’t make up her mind right away), and as they both drive away from Kim’s place, Jimmy’s frustration with his situation erupts in an assault on his company car’s cupholder, symbolic in every possible way of his inner rage. If Jimmy did indeed take the job to impress Kim, it’s entirely possible that the choice has backfired on him. The only question in his mind must be, “Can I be Slippin’ Jimmy or Saul Goodman or whoever and still have Kim?” That would be his ideal world. We know the sad, tragic answer to that question.

Better Call Saul is becoming a bit of a “two-hander” in the middle of season 2, which the Jimmy-Kim corporate law story developing alongside a more conventional Mike story arc, ripped right from the pages of Breaking Bad. We saw Tio Salamanca in the last episode (he returns here), and now we also see the infamous Assassin Twins, with their skull-tipped cowboy boots, playing their silent and threatening roles. At times, the Mike story really does seem like a lost episode of Breaking Bad, and while that’s quite welcome, it does seem to exist in a parallel dimension from the quiet, understated adult drama of Jimmy and Kim. Eventually, these two plot lines will meet, and frankly, to quote Han Solo, I have a bad feeling about that. Not in terms of quality: the creators of this show have proven time and again that they are masters of TV drama, but rather in terms of what that will mean for this touching love story that’s so fascinating in its complexity. The brutal world of the Mexcian cartel will no doubt crash into Jimmy and Kim like a ton of bricks at some point. That tension is far more palpable than even the formidable tension generated by Tio and Mike sitting across a table from each other.

On the subject of Mike: here we see a character who understands exactly what he’s doing and knows how to move in the underworld. Tio is very much his opposite number, and completely confident that he’s not dealing with some dumb punk, but with a “Real Man”, worthy of respect. He even lets Mike stay armed during their meeting, waving off Nacho’s concern with, “I don’t give a shit about the gun.” He knows that Mike is smart enough not to do anything stupid, but what Mike does do is quite bold, demanding ten times the fee Tio had previously offered in exchange for making false testimony to the Police and ensuring Tuco gets out of jail a little earlier than planned. It’s a testament to the power of Mike’s personality that he eventually gets what he wants from the situation, arguing that he needs the money more than the Salamancas (which is true). And, being the honourable man he is, he remembers to return half of his windfall to Nacho, because he has manifestly failed in his original mission, to make Tuco “go away”.

Unlike Jimmy, who goes through many changes over the course of Better Call Saul and is, in fact, in mid-transformation as the series begins, Mike is almost fully-formed right from the start. He’s almost, but not quite the character we remember from Breaking Bad: a dispassionate professional who operates well within the criminal world but somehow rises above it in moral terms. He’s there to be the bridge between the legitimate world and the criminal world. (And, as others have pointed out, he’s ten times the teacher Walter White ever was.) Here in Saul, Mike is hesitating somewhat about going “all-in” to the criminal world, and part of him is sizing up Tio just as much as the gangster is sizing up him. Mike seems to be asking himself, “Are there reasonable people in this business with whom I can work? Or are they all violent and crazy?” He and Nacho seem to have established a relationship of trust, but he’s wary of Tio, with his macho posturing and hints of violence around the edges. We know that he’ll ultimately find his ideal opposite number in Gustavo Fring, but for now, it’s safe to suggest that Mike is about 80% the Breaking Bad character we knew and loved.

At least Mike’s aware of his way forward. Jimmy ends this episode frustrated and feeling hemmed-in, not knowing exactly how or why he’s going to continue with the corporate law firm, not know how he’s going to maintain his relationship with the remarkable woman he loves, and finally not knowing who he wants to be.The manifestation of identity is one of the major themes of Better Call Saul, and this episode adds new shades to a complex and involving portrait of people whose lives are in transition.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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