[This is a review of Better Call Saul season 1, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
After the season premiere established the when, where, and who of Better Call Saul, the second episode is tasked with delving further into the world by setting up a familiar encounter with a familiar face, as a means by which Jimmy McGill might find entry into a life of behind-the-scenes crime.
What's striking about 'Mijo,' then, is how much its narrative trajectory, its tension, and even its specific use of the scenery of New Mexico resemble an episode of Breaking Bad. In fact, when you get right down to it, the episodes that have aired so far have done a thorough job of establishing just how similar Jimmy McGill's arc is to that of Walter White.
The details aren't entirely the same; Jimmy's descent into criminality doesn't feel as hasty, necessary, or nearly as dark as Walt's. Moreover, when Nacho (Orphan Black's Michael Mando) proposes some kind of collaboration to scam the Kettles out of the money they'd embezzled from the county, it feels more like temptation/underhanded opportunity knocking than Walter's fateful decision. But the series nevertheless does establish an interesting parallel between the two that becomes even more overt when you consider both men go on to adopt new names/identities at certain points in their criminal endeavors.
Of course, if 'Mijo' has the look and feel of an episode of Breaking Bad it's likely because Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan were smart enough to bring along many of the talented individuals who helped make that show a success. Here, the fantastic Michelle MacLaren, director of many memorable Breaking Bad episodes, like 'Madrigal' and, of course, the brilliant 'Gliding Over All,' steps behind the camera to deliver an effective glimpse into the inner workings of the mind that will become Saul Goodman.
The basic premise of 'Mijo' – to re-establish Tuco Salamanca and make him a viable threat to Jimmy, despite what is already known about both – requires the episode to shift the focus around in unexpected ways, the most prominent of which is putting the fates of the skateboarding wonder twins in Jimmy's hands.
MacLaren ratchets up the tension early on in a fantastic sequence where Tuco has his attention split between an ominous blood stain on the carpet, his adorable "abuelita" potentially missing her programs, and Jimmy's presence in his living room. The sequence seems to go on forever, with the question of the twins' fate making every second seem that much longer. By the time Tuco takes Jimmy to the garage, revealing the twins are very much still alive, it feels like days have passed.
But MacLaren isn't done there. Soon, Jimmy and his ginger-bearded associates find themselves in a recognizable stretch of desert – inasmuch as it resembles any barren expanse visited by Walt, Jesse, or any number of characters making illicit use of the vastness of New Mexico's desert – waiting to be given a Colombian necktie as a parting gift from their new friend Tuco. The result is another lengthy scene that again shifts the tension away from Jimmy's physical well-being to his emotional one, letting the fate of two men be absolutely dependent on his choices and his actions.
The negotiation of one broken leg each, as opposed to the aforementioned Colombian necktie or whatever other horrible thing Tuco can think of, goes a long way in establishing who Jimmy really is and what he's capable of. He's prone to pulling a scam here and there, but he's basically a good guy – he's not going to walk off and let two kids be murdered – but, as evidenced by the painful result of his negotiations, there are limits to what he can accomplish. Jimmy's not the kind of lawyer who will get you off completely, but you may limp away with a dramatically reduced sentence.
The Tuco sequence sets a lot of the foundation for Jimmy as a character, now that his arc is ready to expand beyond his struggling business and his past as a con man. And later, Jimmy's conversation with Chuck, his "space blanket," and an emergency room bill, expands on that foundation in a darkly humorous way that helps to balance the violence meted out by Tuco. It also demonstrates what Jimmy is capable of in a crisis. And whatever that is, it catches the eye of Nacho, who wants in on the fleecing of the Kettles.
Nacho's arrival at the end of 'Mijo' comes after a phenomenal sequence in a bar (and the aforementioned conversation with Chuck), wherein MacLaren uses breadsticks to underline the trauma of Jimmy's experience, and to act as the catalyst for a "working" montage that is the antithesis of one from Breaking Bad. Whereas Walt and Jesse might look at the end result of such a montage by standing over a boatload of crystal meth or a storage unit full of cash, Jimmy works and works and works, and ends up with nothing to show for it but a stolen plastic cup and brief respite on his office's sofa bed.
The fateful scene at the episode's end leaves Jimmy facing a momentous choice. Even though he tells Nacho he's not in the game, we know that doesn't remain true for very long. In two episodes, the series has positioned its protagonist to enter into a hazardous game that ends badly. But it doesn't make the start of the game any less compelling.
Better Call Saul continues next Monday with 'Nacho' @10pm on AMC.
Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC