Recap Digest: Better Call Saul 2.3, “Amarillo”

“What’d I miss? Anything blow up yet?”

With most works of fiction, the narrative tension comes from not knowing what’s going to happen. The unique tension of Better Call Saul comes from knowing exactly what’s going to happen, just not when or how. If there had never been a Breaking Bad, if we did not know Jimmy McGill will, only a few years hence, be knowingly representing murderers and drug dealers, and Mike Ehrmentraut will be the ruthless hit man/fixer for the Southwest’s biggest meth kingpin, an episode like this one, where really very little happens, might be enough to turn viewers off for good.

But there was a Breaking Bad, and we do know those things, and so every little thing these characters do is freighted with the expectation that THIS is going to be the thing that flips the switch and turns these (relatively) good guys into bad guys.

Jimmy’s commercial is, taken in isolation, not really that big a deal. Maybe he should have checked with the boss before he put it on the air, but we all heard the boss say that Jimmy’s in charge of outreach and he’d defer to whatever Jimmy wanted to do. And “my boss didn’t like my commercial” is hardly a reason to chuck your partner-track job and your morally-upright dream girl and become a drug dealer’s consigliere.

It’s just another brick in the wall. I doubt he’ll get fired over it, but it does represent the first real crack in his relationship with his employers. As we’ve seen with Chuck, when Jimmy gets attacked for doing things his own way, his response is generally to do things his own way twice as hard. So, with this kerfuffle about the commercial we see the seeds being planted for the “Better Call Saul!” ads and billboards that will be dotting the Albuquerque skyline in just a couple of years. Jimmy’s commercial, while a bit exploitative, is actually pretty well done, and shows his flair for the medium. So, if he loses his job over it – or even just has to deal with some unpleasantness over it – and Kim catches him in a lie about it, which seems inevitable, it probably won’t be the last straw, but it will be a straw.

Likewise, Mike’s moonlighting as muscle for low-level drug peddlers in order to give his granddaughter extra money is not really all that compelling unless you know these are just his first few steps down an increasingly dark road. His daughter-in-law, Stacy, worries her neighborhood isn’t safe and hearing gunshots at night is plainly either overblown or totally imaginary, but then again her husband was murdered not too long ago, so a little paranoid PTSD is understandable. Despite knowing there’s nothing more dangerous than the paperboy in the neighborhood, Mike takes pity on her and agrees to move her and the girl to a nicer part of town, which is going to necessitate some more lucrative work than $200-a-day bodyguard gigs. While we might think even that’s not enough to turn someone into a professional murderer, whatever’s eating Stacy might well develop into something a simple change of address can’t fix, that she’ll be unable to work or even care for her own child without help, and that’s a problem a fugitive parking-garage attendant isn’t likely to be able to solve without a major cash influx. Greg Cwik of Entertainment Weekly puts his finger on the season’s theme:

The theme of the episode, and the season, is people doing bad things for good reasons, or ostensibly bad things for ostensibly good reasons. Jimmy is paying off bus drivers so he can solicit Sandpiper residents for signatures, which will help him win the case and get them money. (Of course, the question of whether he’s doing this for them or for his own career/ego remains ambiguous.) And Mike, whose subplots feel increasingly like wadding while we wait for an explosive payoff, is taking up seedy side jobs to help out his son’s widow and his granddaughter. The same theme courses Breaking Bad but in a more extreme way since Walt isn’t just side-stepping the fine print (to mix a metaphor, Marco-style) or taking on shady but mostly harmless gigs as a bodyguard, an enforcer, a bag man. Morality is more nebulous in Better Call Saul, though the show still has to exist within the confines of Bad’s established lore, with all roads leading to Saul.

The stakes here are, for a prime-time prestige show, pretty low, especially after the first season had life-or-death situations in its first three episodes while Breaking Bad had an airplane crash and debris raining on Albuquerque like a plague in its season 2 opener and closer. Better Call Saul opened its second season with Jimmy/Gene sitting alone in a garbage room, scratching his initials into the wall. Jimmy’s relationship with Kim is slowly dissolving, though we know his career will flourish. Mike, who puts batteries in his granddaughter’s toys when he isn’t aiding drug dealers (that writhing piggy toy is terrifying; it doesn’t look dissimilar to someone in the thralls of a death spasm), is still the most badass grandpa on TV, but here he leans closer to the grandpa side of the spectrum. Saul’s season 1 premiere had 6.88 million viewers; season 2 had 2.57, and that number seems to be dropping. The writers are unconcerned with rewarding viewers, which makes me increasingly fascinated by the show. Instead of guys disintegrating in bathtubs, we get guys making infomercials.

The New York Times’ David Segal, who complained last week about the show’s low stakes, is pleasantly surprised:

Say this for Monday’s episode: It ends with cliffhangers.

Jimmy McGill has an appointment in the morning with the partners of Davis & Main, who will decide whether his TV ad — an appeal for clients that was never approved by the firms’ mandarins — will get him fired. And Mike has been summoned by Nacho and asked if he will take a job as a hit man.

This is more suspense than we saw at the end of either of the first two episodes, which seemed completely uninterested in leaving behind a bit of viewer bait. That said, I found myself only intermittently gripped by “Amarillo,” as the episode is titled. What’s clear now is that Better Call Saul, at least for the time being, is mostly a law-firm drama with psychological wrinkles and a hearty helping of fraternal intrigue. In the spectrum of entertainment, the show is currently closer to L.A. Law than Breaking Bad. Not that it lacks for tension. But the tension isn’t of the “Is that dude going to get shot in the head in the desert?” variety, as it was briefly in Season 1.

No, the big, drawn-out question of “Amarillo” is whether Jimmy’s ad is going to work, and light up the phones at Davis & Main. It does, and I credit the writer (Jonathan Glatzer) for making that moment resonate; I felt palpable relief when the geriatrics started dialing in.

Donna Bowman of The A.V. Club praises how the show’s simplicity gives it uncommon depth:

But simple doesn’t mean simplistic. Because the plots are stripped down and moved forward step by step, we strategize alongside the characters. Because their decisions are given a generous cushion of narrative space, we hang suspended with them in their pivotal moments. Because the stakes are clear, we feel the existential weight shift from the anxiety of a free agent to the nausea of a condemned victim.

Just look at how “Amarillo” ends. Jimmy goes back to an oblivious Kim and a movie about submarines being crushed under pressure, knowing now that his decision to bypass his boss won’t be excused on the grounds that he made it work. Over the course of the hour, here’s where he has been:

* the ragged fringes of respectable lawyering (with his stunt on the bus);

* an ostentatious pledge to avoid even the appearance of solicitation (provoked by the withering disdain of his brother);

* a new height of achievement in the creative work of persuasion that he lives for (the commercial);

* the momentous choice not to submit his masterstroke to another’s approval, instead rolling the dice first that he will succeed, and second that success will cover his sins;

* triumph as his first gamble pays off;

* and finally, dread of the coming morning, when the bill comes due for the second one.

Consider how much psychological ground that covers, and how spare and spacious are the scenes that guide us through it. A Better Call Saul episode never feels rushed or overstuffed. The breathing room the viewers are given could be mistaken, by viewers used to prestige complexity, for lack of incident. But even a cursory analysis belies that notion. It’s because we always know where we are and what’s at stake—because we never worry that the creators are waiting to ambush us with some bit of backstory or left-field complication—that we are given the chance to travel so far and empathize so deeply.

And Observer’s Sean T. Collins laments the incongruity of putting Mike’s and Jimmy’s storylines next to each other:

Better Call Saul is two of the best shows on TV right now. One of them is a subtle, period workplace drama about a con man trying desperately to go straight but finding his old ways too lucrative to avoid employing in his new life too. The other is an ominous slow-burn thriller about a retired cop with the eyes of a Methuselah and the voice of a mausoleum door, slowly being drawn into a life of crime he’ll be better at than anything he was before, but which will inevitably destroy him, body and soul. If AMC put these two shows on back to back, it’d have a hell of a programming block on its hands. But if it ran the period workplace drama while some other network played the doom-laden quiet-man crime thriller in the same time slot…well, I know which one I’d DVR and which one I’d watch live.

 

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