This latest episode of Better Call Saul is easily the series’ most cinematic. There are some plot developments here, but not many. There’s dialogue, but not too much, and there could have been much more. Instead, this episode revels in the silences between characters and lingers over establishing shots and long, quiet takes.
Specifically, we have many examples here of the use of negative space in the frame: characters are shoved over to the side in favour of towering ceilings and windows (at HHM) or even simply blackness itself (such as in Mike’s house). Plenty of space is left over the actor’s heads, usually a no-no, unless the director wishes to establish a feeling of uneasy tension in the shot. Full credit must go to episode director Larysa Kondracki for artfully using her visuals to mirror the main dramatic point of this outing: with one exception, the characters are way out of their comfort zone.
Kim, in her bid to go solo as a lawyer in independent practice, first has to endure a profoundly awkward resignation scene with Howard. Seeing her, crouched in the corner of the waiting room while shafts of post-modern decor pass through the negative space above her head, tells us all we need to know about how she’s feeling. HHM is much bigger than her, and yet she’s still prepared to go toe-to-toe with them, both in legal terms and business terms. Howard, presuming that she’s going to join another law firm, is surprised and impressed when he discovers her intention to pursue private practice. After being curt and cold for the past few episodes, he’s all smiles with her again, but immediately upon her leaving the room, he calls his secretary to get Mesa Verde on the phone so he can make sure to retain them as a client. He doesn’t even wait for Kim to get out of earshot: he wants her to know who she’s dealing with as a competitor. Kim sells her many virtues to Mesa Verde at a lunch and they are willing to go with her, until Chuck McGill rises from his medieval fortress (his house has rarely looked more Gothic than under Kondracki’s direction) to endure the electromagnetic cacophony of HHM and defeat his wayward ex-employee. He does this, significantly, not out of any spite against Kim, but rather to keep Jimmy from getting anything like a victory.
Jimmy, on the other hand, is the only character here who is completely in his comfort zone. He’s calm, relaxed, leaning back on the counter of the Dentist’s office he proposes as he and Kim’s shared office space. (Their offices, like their initials, are perfectly symmetrical reflections of each other. Kondracki makes full use of the composition potential of such a situation.) We don’t see much of Jimmy’s own attempts to attract clients, other than a funny interlude where his hired young film students (from the Sandpiper commercial) help him steal some shots of a B-29 using an elderly man posing as a war veteran. Here we get a big part of the Saul Goodman ethos: play up the patriotism to such a thundering degree in his commercials and persona (“Remember: you have red white and blue coursing through your veins!”), and clients won’t notice that he’s really a shifty and marginal “criminal” lawyer. From that shot to the future offices of Saul Goodman with the constitution wrapping around a desk as if it were the oval office is a fairly straight line.
Jimmy’s main role here, dramatically, is to be the steady centre as everyone steps out of their comfort zone and gets hurt. Chuck is in bad shape after subjecting himself to the unfiltered EM forces he believes to be poisoning him and his assistant Ernesto is way out of his league in dealing with his boss/patient. Jimmy steps right in, gives Ernesto the night off, and proceeds not only to care for his brother but to sabotage his Mesa Verde case. Chuck has sold himself to Mesa Verde on the basis of “experience”. He pulls out every old-man trope in the box to convince the bank that he, with his years of experience and meticulous attention to detail, is the only man to handle their legal affairs, not the untested Kim Wexler. Jimmy, in a brilliant bit of larceny, strategically steals and alters some of Chuck’s files on the case while his brother sleeps, not making any huge changes, but mixing up two digits of the bank’s address. His strategy, at least as far as we can discern, is to embarrass Chuck in front of his new client. After all, with all his experience and expertise, how could Chuck possibly get as simple as the address wrong? It’s the sort of slip that doesn’t speak well for his appeal to authority. Jimmy will always be on Kim’s side, and now free to play the game his way, he won’t be deterred.
The final shot of the Jimmy/Kim storyline, with Kim once again looking very small and very humble in front of a huge Real Estate sign outside their new offices, features Jimmy drawing her out and lifting her up, using only the purest cinematic language. When he sits down next to her, the composition changes, and suddenly she’s bigger, she’s on Jimmy’s scale, not dwarfed by the world. It’s a wonderful, subtle bit of visual storytelling. He’ll pick her up and carry her if he has to. That’s the amount of love he has for this woman.
We haven’t even mentioned the Orson Welles-esque crane shot that opens the episode, set (in true Touch of Evil fashion) at the US-Mexico border. And unnamed driver takes a truckload of refrigerated food (including popsicles) up to the US, quietly submitting to a search of his vehicle and himself. After being cleared, he causally takes a popsicle from the truck and eats it himself, driving on. Then, in a shot that could easily have been in Breaking Bad, he pulls over in the desert and picks up a gun, buried, judging from the collection of popsicle sticks, where many guns before had been found. It’s really no surprise when the truck arrives at the Salamanca-owned restaurant, now under Mike’s personal surveillance. It seems as though we’re meant to see this driver as some sort of assassin, and Mike is under no illusions about targets. Later, when he and his girl Friday (his granddaughter) make holes in a garden hose, once again the negative space in the frame give us the clear sense that this is not something to water his garden. The point is hammered home when Mike is shown later adding nails to the hose to make a tire-piercing trap (for Hector’s car, one suspects, now that Mike has his plate number) while he watches, of all films, His Girl Friday on TV. Mike’s quiet war of attrition with the cartel is part self-preservation but also part audition. We know, from Breaking Bad, that Mike will someday be one of the most valuable people in a criminal empire, and if he can outwit such a high-ranking member of the gang, the Salamancas would be fools not to recognize his talent and potential.
We have to come back, in the end, to the way that Jimmy manages to keep his thumb on the scale in his ongoing cold war with Chuck. What’s interesting about this latest skirmish is that Jimmy doesn’t really stand to gain personally from sabotaging Mesa Verde from HHM, but Kim does. (Jimmy, of course, will benefit indirectly by keeping Kim happy.) Saul Goodman always had hints of deep loyalty and generosity underneath his layers of self-preservation and paranoia, but in Jimmy we really see someone with a good heart, capable of acts of profound love. Frankly, I’m surprised Jimmy didn’t simply propose marriage in this episode. He seemed close to it at several points. But perhaps that’s a bit too obvious a course of action for a show that insists on taking the long way round the story.
Someone mentioned to me the other day that Jimmy has yet to come out and say “I love you” to Kim, but perhaps that’s on par with the entire way Better Call Saul has chosen to tell its story this season. Years from now, this season may be held up as a prime example in film classes of “show, don’t tell”, right down to the fact that Jimmy won’t “tell” Kim he loves her, but rather “shows” it in a million little ways. When she looks at him, the vulnerability in her eyes is palpable, but so is the gratitude for all he’s done for her. They’ve carried each other in the past, and they’re doing it right now in the present. If only they had a future, because of course, we know they don’t.