'Better Call Saul': Getting In On the Ground Floor

[This is a review of Better Call Saul season 1, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]


'Alpine Shepherd Boy' is the first episode of Better Call Saul to have a title that doesn't end in the letter "o". It is also the first episode to feel like it is more concerned with asking questions of what might happen next, than it is with examining what the is actually going on in the here and now – or, considering the series takes place in 2001, the characters' present.

But that shifting focus actually works to the episode's advantage in some ways. There are many different elements at play – i.e., Jimmy's new clients, Chuck's encounter with the police, and, finally, Mike's after-work activities that end with the police at his door – which at times feel too disconnected to really create a cohesive whole. But the elements themselves, though disparate, do offer some laugh-out-loud moments and a few potentially compelling developments that, moving forward, may impact the narrative enough to chalk this up as a well meaning bit of table setting.

For starters, the episode does a great job of handling the aftermath of Jimmy's billboard stunt from 'Hero.' The promise of new business was always going to come with a price. And lucky for Jimmy, the only price he had to pay was a couple of lunatics who thought his slippery brand of lawyering was exactly what they needed to make their own dreams come true. In a sense, it's a sort of karmic justice for Jimmy that if he can't attract business by legitimate means, then he's not going to attract any legitimate business. That doesn't mean there's not business to be had; it just means it's not the business he – or anyone else for that matter – would ever consider taking on.

Director Nicole Kassell excels in building up expectations and then letting them collapse under the enormity of their ridiculousness. Jimmy's first potential client reads like a goldmine – one that requires he put on a guise and act a part, but a goldmine nonetheless. And the way the anti-government entrepreneur casually takes Jimmy's claim that his secession from the United States could take years, and then offers up a cool million dollars to get the job done demonstrates how committed Better Call Saul is to running with its comedic sensibilities when the appropriate occasion pops up.

What's interesting is the way the episode initially sells the comedy, and then follows it up with progressively funnier bits, like the "sex toilet." But things take a surprising turn after the agonizing but funny wait for Jimmy's third client to make it down the stairs and across the living room with the titular Alpine Shepherd Boy in hand. Her extreme stipulations for her will – which details the dispersal of her figurine collection – again serve the episode's focus on humor quite well, but the way Odenkirk asks for and eagerly accepts $140 in cash from an elderly woman makes that comedy considerably darker.

That kind of dark comedy is definitely in Better Call Saul's wheelhouse. And the mixture of the absurd with the familiar melancholy of continual failure and rejection helps make Jimmy's decision to gravitate towards elder law (and model his suit after Matlock) seem like the right decision for the series – both in terms of the evolution of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, as well as the promise of more funny moments, like the rhyming advertisement at the bottom of the Jell-O cups.

'Alpine Shepherd Boy' attempts to balance out the comedy with a look at Chuck's condition, stemming from his adventure outside to retrieve his neighbor's paper. The Chuck thread has been the series' connection to Jimmy's past, as the suggestion here is that Jimmy's billboard stunt is at least partially responsible for Chuck's predicament – and perhaps Jimmy's less-than-ethical behavior is a potential cause of his brother's electromagnetic malady.

Whatever the cause, Chuck's worsening mental state – as proven by Dr. Cruise (Clea Duvall) – affords the series a chance to develop Better Call Saul's supporting characters by putting them in a volatile situation that doesn't necessarily have a timeframe on when it needs to be resolved. The result of this allows for actors like Michael McKean and Rhea Seehorn to develop a more complex relationship with Jimmy, while Patrick Fabian's Hamlin gets to be much more of the classic antagonist who isn't waiting to be defeated, necessarily.

The dynamic is interesting, and if 'Alpine Shepherd Boy' has one thing really going for it, aside from the laughs, it would be its commitment to developing the conflicting relationships and muddled feelings going on in a group that would normally orbit around someone like Chuck, but instead find themselves caring for him. Hopefully, as the season continues, there will be more opportunities to explore this complicated group dynamic in a way propels the story more.

Perhaps there would have been more room for some of that propulsion, if the episode hadn't shifted gears to focus on things from Mike's point of view so late in the episode. Now it was a given that Mike was going to be a player in the series from the moment that Jonathan Banks was cast, but while spending the last five minutes with Mike – from his meal at the diner to the awkward encounter he has with Kerry Condon to the police who show up on his door – generates considerable interest in the next episode, it doesn't do much for an episode that was already finding it difficult to connect its various other threads.

Better Call Saulcontinues next Monday with 'Five-O' @10pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:

Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC

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'Better Call Saul': Getting In On the Ground Floor