BETTER CALL SAUL, S1E2: The arc of Jimmy’s moral universe bends towards bad

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By Sy Mukherjee

Well. That escalated quickly.

“Anchorman,” GIF courtesy http://www.pandawhale.com

After the cliffhanger conclusion of “Saul’s” premiere episode, “Uno,” episode 2, “Mijo,” launches with a classic “Breaking Bad”-ism. We see an extreme close-up of a knife as Tuco slices and dices tomatoes on a chopping board. As we soon learn, we’re in Tuco’s abuelita’s (that’s “grandmother’s”) house. Abuelita has the two skateboarding scam artists in tow and is worried sick that she’s in trouble and owes the kids money.

But never fear, abuelita—not when you’ve got a psychopathic druggie with serious anger issues for a grandson! Tuco dispatches the two skateboarding knuckleheads with some serious blows from granny’s walker after they have the gall to insult her and call her a “bizz-natch” (so 2002). At Tuco’s insistence, abuelita is blissfully unaware of the fisticuffs, upstairs watching her telenovelas while her grandson pulls Jimmy into the house at gun point. 

This is a good moment to pause and consider some of the stylistic ingredients which have, so far, lent “Saul” a different flavor from its predecessor. “Bad” was always a dark, dark comedy. It had plenty of scenes where this humor was overt (think Walt throwing the pizza onto the roof) or mixed with the deliciously macabre (like the unforgettable moment in the first season when a hefty portion of a chemically dis-incorporated body comes raining down from the ceiling of Jesse’s house). In some of its most powerful moments, “Bad’s” humor was propelled by situations that were so horrifying and gut-churning that all you can do is laugh (as Walt does, maniacally, in a famous season 4 scene in the crawl space of his house). 

“Saul’s” humor has generally been way more on the nose so far. That’s not a bad thing at all—but it’s a very different vibe from “Bad” that sort of underscores the divergent personalities of each show’s protagonist.

“Better Call Saul,” photo courtesy http://www.blogs.amctv.com

Consider the central scene of the episode: Tuco and several henchmen are in the desert, interrogating Jimmy about his involvement with the two skateboard morons and whether or not they were trying to “punk” Tuco and his grandmother. There’s plenty of tension in the scene (somewhat dampened by the reality that we know Jimmy will not meet his demise or get a limb hacked off in 2002) as Jimmy alternates between lying to tell Tuco what he wants to hear (that he’s an FBI agent gunning for a drug lord, aka Tuco) and telling the truth to his less outwardly sociopathic lieutenant Nacho (Michael Mando)—that he was trying to scam the county treasurer and his wife, the Kettlemans. Nacho convinces Tuco to let Jimmy go, pointing out that it would be bad to kill a lawyer who’s a “known quantity,” especially since Jimmy’s been respectful (unlike Skateboard Idiots 1 and 2).

What follows is a full-on, laugh-out-loud exchange wherein Jimmy literally plea bargains with Tuco to save his clients’ lives, working him down from more severe options like flailing and Colombian neckties to breaking a couple of legs (literally, just one leg per person)—a punishment that, Jimmy argues, is a more proportionate response to the crime. Of course, this is a Vince Gilligan joint, so Jimmy can’t just walk off triumphant and pleased with himself. Tuco and his henchmen viciously attack the skateboarders—they don’t so much break the kids’ legs as shatter them while laughing maniacally, and Jimmy watches on from a long-range shot that slowly closes up towards his sickened, flinching face.

There aren’t too many more significant plot points until the very end of the episode, when Nacho pays Jimmy (who is obviously feeling pretty proud of himself for saving the skateboarders’ lives, even if watching them suffer through their punishments made him sick to his stomach later on) a visit at his decrepit little combo office/bedroom at the back of a Vietnamese nail salon. Nacho tells Jimmy that he wants to bilk the Kettlemans, whom he knows are loaded and powerful, and pay Jimmy a “finder’s fee” for his services. Jimmy declines, saying he isn’t a criminal. Nacho says they’ll talk again once Jimmy’s ready to deal with reality, giving us a glimpse into some of the bad that’s bound to go down in the coming episodes.

The big question that we’ll be answering as we move forward in this season: How will the arc of Jimmy McGill’s downfall compare with Walter White’s? There are already big differences between the two. Unlike Walt, Jimmy isn’t weighed down with a massive, self-deluding ego that tries to convince him that he’s not really such a bad guy (although he genuinely seems to be trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow for now, if only for his older brother Chuck, and not fall back into the habit of being “Slippin’ Jimmy”). Saul’s slow dance with the devil, while still halting, is something he appears to be approaching with full cognizance and agency. But just how far will he go—and how fast will Gilligan and company take us there?

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