Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul

Recap Digest: ‘Better Call Saul’ 3.6, “Off Brand”

With last week’s spectacular “Chicanery” serving up a full hour of McGill fraternal drama and not so much as a check-in with the Mike and Gus half of the show, this week’s episode more than made up for the lack of Pollos-related plot movement, with appearances by Breaking Bad characters Victor, Tyrus, Krazy-8, and even the world’s highest-strung international criminal, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, just in town to help Gus purchase the commercial space that will become his superlab through her German employer, Madrigal Electromotive. (Here’s hoping that at some point soon we get a scene where Victor and Tyrus decide they need to become workout buddies and drop a little weight, because they both looked considerably more svelte when they were dealing with Walt and Jesse.)

It also spent some time with Nacho (Michael Mando) a character who’s been nearly forgotten as the Pollos stuff has taken center stage. Mando is a magnetic performer who I suspect Vince Gilligan and company were excited to work with before they got distracted with all the fun fan service – perhaps they originally thought they’d be getting to all this Gus and Hector stuff later in the series? – so it’s great to see him getting some more interesting material, chafing at the demands of working for a boss as unreasonable as Hector, who now wants to turn Nacho’s father’s auto-upholstery business into his very own Pollos-style front. This looks to be developing into a bigger plot, and it seems likely that Nacho will once again look to Mike for help dealing with his Hector problem. It’s been easy to assume that this show is going to show us how Hector ended up a bell-ringing mute in a wheelchair, and even easier to assume that some combination of Mike and Gus would be responsible, but it’s sure looking like Nacho is going to be in the mix somewhere – after all, Hector’s messing with his dad.

Oh yeah, and I guess there was one other Breaking Bad character that turned up, the one this show is named after. I’d always assumed that Jimmy was going to change his name because he’d been disgraced, or as a way to get around having been disbarred; turns out his legal suspension is only for a year, and leery of damaging the equity he’s built in the “Gimme Jimmy!” brand, turns to his go-to pseudonym from his Chicago Sunroof days in order to pose as a TV commercial producer so he can sell off his previously bought ad time (in a bit of savvy salesmanship, he’s actually selling the commercial-production services, and throwing in the ad time for free). It’s a clever, unexpected way to bring Saul Goodman into the story, and given the many hints Jimmy’s dropped about being a film nerd over the course of the series, it’s the best kind of plot twist: a surprise that makes total organic story sense, this series’ stock-in-trade.

Sean T. Collins of Observer wants more Nacho:

But the most compelling aspect of the episode involves a character who’s now pretty far afield from our leading players. After last week’s courtroom theatrics with Chuck and Jimmy and the full-on Breaking Bad prologue we’ve been getting from Mike and Gus, it’s a gutsy move to pull back to Nacho Varga, Salamanca family lieutenant. After all, he’s the only major figure on the drug-trade end of the story we know doesn’t make it into Walter White’s orbit. Paradoxically, his uncertain fate somehow makes his story less engaging, not more, since your brain can’t help but tell you he somehow doesn’t count.

But actor Michael Mando has always made more of this character than meets the eye, largely through the use of his own. This guy has eyes you can read like a newspaper, conveying anger, fear, regret, resentment, admiration, or cold calculation while his voice remains silent and his body stays still. This can make Nacho frightening, as it does when his boss Hector Salamanca goads him into a sudden explosion of violence against the mild-mannered underling whose payment was short that week. (The poor guy winds up getting strangled in a basement by Walter White, so there’s not much improvement in his prospects to look forward to.)

But it also makes Nacho weirdly sympathetic and sad, usually when we see him in his civilian job, working for his father’s upholstery business. Whether he’s zoning out after committing that assault and accidentally sewing his own hand, or trying in vain to dissuade Don Hector from pursuing a takeover of his dad’s legitimately legitimate business, you just get the sense that this is the life he wishes he could lead. Without ever articulating it—that wouldn’t be Nacho’s style—Mando feeds this haunted coulda-woulda-shoulda vibe into Nacho’s every move, from getting a gun pointed to his head by Gus’s thugs to purloining one of Hector’s pills when the sick old man drops it on the floor. It’s the thread that sews him together. I hope we see more of him before he comes undone.

Variety’s Sonia Saraiya wonders at the root causes of Chuck’s vendetta against Jimmy:

What is at the core of Chuck’s distaste for James McGill, Esq.? That’s been the story of “Better Call Saul” for the last 25 episodes, but as is characteristic of storytelling by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the show has not offered clear answers. Is it merely a territorial spat over the profession, as McKean suggested when we spoke about “Chicanery”? Is it long-simmering resentment over Jimmy’s ease at smooth-talking and joking through the world, up to and including Jimmy’s ease with their late mother? Is entrenched paranoia a symptom of Chuck’s electromagnetic sensitivity — which may or may not be a side effect of mental illness? Or does Chuck hold the legal profession in such high esteem that he feels Jimmy cannot be trusted with it?

It’s not clear if Chuck thinks that the law is just that holy or that Jimmy is just that awful, but neither, from what we’ve seen, is true. The law is still a system used by many for bad ends as well as good, and Jimmy is a flawed person who is capable of acts both selfless and selfish. Perhaps Chuck could argue that the law is black-and-white and uncompromising, while Jimmy is constantly softening boundaries and blurring edges. But even that isn’t strictly true. The law has plenty of gray areas, and Jimmy himself does have a couple of defining principles — “get a lawyer” being among them.

Chuck’s tragedy — and he is a tragic figure — is that he is uniquely encouraging the outcome that he is spending all of his time trying to prevent. The more he distrusts Jimmy and elevates the law — the more he blocks Jimmy from legitimate practice — the more likely it becomes that Jimmy will find a way to work around the system. There is something hateful and patronizing about his efforts that thwart Jimmy’s advancement at seemingly every turn. At the same time, Chuck turns out to be right: He sees how dangerous his smooth-talking brother is, where everyone else sees a lovable huckster. Whatever else is influencing this crusade of his, the frustrating truth is that his concern is justified.

Alan Sepinwall of Uproxx sees the episode as a turning point:

“Off Brand” actually lays the groundwork for a lot of the transformation from Jimmy McGill — dutiful brother, happy eldercare lawyer, a man who tries to do things the right way as much as he can — into the more unapologetically slick and amoral criminal lawyer (in both senses of the word, per Jesse Pinkman) we first got to know so well. When Rebecca stops by Jimmy and Kim’s office to plead for Jimmy’s help with Chuck, Jimmy is cruel and cold in dismissing the idea that he owes his brother anything anymore. And where we’ve always seen Jimmy as someone who genuinely enjoys spending time with his elderly clients, the montage of him calling all of them to explain about his suspension suggests even his patience has limits, at least when so many of these conversations are packed into such a small window. The 12-month suspension from practicing law is a relatively short sentence, given his crimes, but it’s a long time — especially at the pace this franchise tends to move — for him to think about exactly who and what he wants to be when his law career resumes. When he and Kim stand outside the office discussing whether to give Francesca her two weeks notice, Jimmy insists, “As far as I’m concerned, nothing’s changed.” But it has. He can’t be a lawyer for a year, and even if the commercial business turns into a thriving enough concern to cover his half of the rent and Francesca’s salary, it’s easy to see Jimmy in 12 months deciding that he’d like to be Saul Goodman as a lawyer, too, and maybe take some criminal cases instead of drinking tea with a lot of nice but long-winded old people.

Over at the A.V. Club, Donna Bowman sees the episode’s Breaking Bad cameos as a diversion:

Those moments distract briefly from a gorgeous meditation on family, delivered by writer Ann Cherkis and director Keith Gordon as they move back and forth between Nacho and Chuck. Michael Mando is back front and center, commanding the screen as he sits in front of Hector to receive payments from the Salamanca crews, then deferring to his father as he works late nights sewing upholstery. The latter shots are especially gorgeous, all lamplight and satisfying machinery and framing through doorways. More subtle is the contribution of camera placement to the scenes in El Michoacáno, the restaurant where Hector receives the weekly take from his street crews. Just below Nacho’s eyeline, off to his left so we can always see Hector reading the sports section of a Spanish-language newspaper behind him, this framing shows Nacho’s intimidating power, but it also catches him in between Hector and the hapless lackeys that Hector uses then discards.

By the end of the episode, Nacho has been given a dreadful choice: loyalty to his father (“a simply man, not in the business,” he pleads to Hector) or to his familia del crimen. Hector only wants to temporarily humiliate Gus by taking half—no, 60%—of the drugs the Los Pollos Hermanos trucks move across the border. Long-term, he needs a new front business, and he’s got his eye on the upholstery materials pipeline from Jalisco to Albuquerque. I suspect Nacho might enlist Mike to deflect Hector’s attention from that plan, and Mike may perceive that Nacho’s interests and the Fring agenda coincide. We’re certainly inching closer to open warfare between the Salamanca and Fring branches of the cartel, and I’d prefer Nacho not find himself in between them.

Speaking of open warfare, neither Chuck nor Jimmy have any interest in taking advice on their family feud. Jimmy considers the matter closed; he’s completely focused on putting his clients in cold storage so they’ll be around in twelve months when he comes off suspension. When Rebecca appeals to him for help, he responds that Chuck isn’t his brother anymore. (And besides, that’s what he flew Rebecca in for, to bandage Chuck’s wounds after the physical and psychological torment he planned for the hearing. That, and to twist the knife further by having Rebecca watch Chuck’s humiliation.)

Howard also wants to move on and put Chuck’s conflict with Jimmy in the past. “Think of the injustices that would have gone unanswered” if Clarence Darrow had put his energy into supervising “ne’er-do-well relatives” instead of the law, he pleads. Chuck seems to agree—“to new beginnings,” he toasts with Howard’s 1966 Macallan—but the fresh start he’s thinking of is retaking the offensive against his brother. To that end, he works on acclimating himself to electromagnetism by holding the batteries from the tape recorder (another gorgeous shot, with the Rayovac C-cell rolling into closeup on the table before he grabs it). He’s got a plan, and it involves Dr. Laura Cruz (Clea DuVall), the doctor whose clandestine test in the hospital conclusively demonstrated the psychosomatic nature of Chuck’s condition. Venturing out in a space blanket hoodie to call her from a phone booth, he flinches from every neon sign as the camera filter extends the lights into vertical streaks and the sound design surrounds him with crackles and buzzes.

And The New York Times’ David Segal takes issue with the way the show’s writers are toying with us:

The man who appeared in that exuberant TV ad for TV ads at the end of this episode was “Saul Goodman,” a guy who should not be confused with Saul Goodman. Saul Goodman is an attorney with a side order of huckster. With “Saul Goodman,” the huckster is the whole meal. The two should not be confused.

I mention this only because I’ve lamented before that the namesake of this show was yet to appear, and as far as I’m concerned, that absent streak — think Lou Gehrig in reverse — continues. If there is any doubt that the writers of “Better Call Saul” understand that they are tantalizing us here, consider the episode’s closing line.

“It’s just a name,” Jimmy tells Kim.

Oh no it’s not! The heartless teases of the show’s writing room are basically telling us: “Yeah, we’re pretty committed to drawing out this whole ‘Waiting for Goodman’ thing. And we are amused by your impatience.”

 

New episodes of Better Call Saul air at 9pm ET on AMC; recent episodes are available on-demand.

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