[This is a review of Better Call Saul season 1, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
The business with Mike that made last week's Better Call Saul such a compelling and tonally different episode continues through a great opening segment in 'Bingo'. While Mike's dealings with the cops seem as though they are over for the most part, there's plenty of allusion to what lies ahead - with a fabulous opening shot that scans a series of mug shots before landing on Jimmy and Mike's sullen mugs.
The moment makes for a fun visual gag, while also carrying some narrative weight; especially as the episode shifts gears to find itself somewhere between the gloom and intensity of 'Five-O' and the silliness of 'Alpine Shepherd Boy'. In this case, the issue is weighing the gravity of Jimmy's ethical decision not to represent the Kettlemans, and to postpone his dream of expansion (and possible partnership with Kim) in favor of doing the right thing. And, if anything, the final moment wherein Jimmy screams and pounds on the door that was intended to lead to Kim's office - only to break down before composing himself long enough to pose as his own receptionist - serves as yet another example of just how varied the series can be when it comes to matters of tonality.
That halfway point between bleakness and hilarity is the sweet spot for the episode. Coming off an hour where two (murderous) cops were killed, and Mike's stoic, bricklike exterior was knocked down by the emotional wrecking ball of confessing to having broken his boy, it was the right decision not to give the audience whiplash by going all in with Odenkirk's gift for comedy. This leads to a more balanced approach to the episode's threads - which, though they are as varied as the threads in 'Alpine Shepherd Boy', they feel much more part of a cohesive whole.
In fact, in the episode's early goings, Jimmy's entire life seems like it has finally become more organized and consistent. He's a successful lawyer specializing in elder law; someone who is not only looking to finally escape the acetone-smelling confines of his current office, but also emceeing bingo night at the retirement home (and giving away a handsome notebook to the lucky winner, I might add). There's even a terrific scene between Jimmy and Chuck, where the older McGill seems like he's finally ready to do something about his aversion to electromagnetic fields. And even though Jimmy now knows Chuck's disorder is a psychological one, he plays the part of encouraging little brother – and he even leaves some files behind, to remind Chuck of his love for the law.
To depict Jimmy on such an upward trajectory seems counterintuitive to the story the audience knows about Saul Goodman (and even Slippin' Jimmy). Men like Jimmy don't usually get a chance to go on the straight an narrow; and when they do, they don't stay on it for very long.
As such, things begin to go downhill when Kim politely declines Jimmy's offer of partnership at his burgeoning elder law firm (complete with the corner office). They then begin a rapid and irreversible descent when the Kettlemans come back to make good on the $30K "retainer" he took from them awhile back. The bribe turns out to be Jimmy's undoing, as it saddles him with an obstinate client in Betsy (and a feckless one in Craig), and a court case he can't hope to win.
It also puts Kim in a bind (or "the cornfield") back at Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. That means Jimmy's decision to take the Kettlemans' money costs him more than that upscale office space; it also costs him his only potential means of wrenching Kim away from his nemesis.
The examination of Jimmy and Kim's relationship is really the meat of what 'Bingo' is trying to get across. Amidst all the other interesting aspects, like watching Mike consume a bushel of apples as he waits for Craig to lead him to where the stolen cash is stashed (or even Chuck's desire to improve his condition), what stands out the most are the still-undefined parameters of Kim and Jimmy's relationship. And those unanswered questions only make Jimmy's decision to sacrifice his ill-gotten upward mobility to make sure she doesn't suffer for a choice made due to a weakness in character all the more fascinating.
To go from depicting a man riding higher than he ever has, to watching him sink back down to the depths he'd fought so hard to escape is a difficult balancing act, but it's one that 'Bingo' handles quite well. Better Call Saul has crafted such a persuasive story of the lovable loser that is Jimmy McGill that it can sometimes be hard to remember this is all leading to the emergence of Saul Goodman. So, to see an episode such as this, where the protagonist pulls the rug out from under his own feet, is both excruciating and exciting. Every step – or missteps, as it were – that Jimmy makes brings him closer to the persona he will become. And that sense of inexorableness is what makes this prequel so entertaining and so consistently compelling.
Better Call Saul continues next Monday with 'Rico' @10pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC