“Better Call Saul” is the kind of episode that made me get interested in television in the first place. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it would be nauseatingly hilarious in one shot and then cut to another that would load on the unbearable tension. In so many ways, it’s a minor encapsulation of so many of the show’s major themes (from the idea that you can’t be just a little bit of a criminal to the thought that resisting temptation is so very, very hard), but it’s also a surprisingly fast-paced episode of the notoriously slow-moving series. The episode even manages to make famed comedian Bob Odenkirk seem like a part of its universe with a character who is both the sort of joke-y character he plays well and a necessary piece of the puzzle of Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) burgeoning criminal empire. Season two has been building to this. Hell, the SHOW has been building to this. We’re at a precipice, and the RV is pointed downhill. We just passed the point of no return.
“Better Call Saul,” written by Peter Gould and directed by Terry McDonough, opens inauspiciously enough, with Badger (Matt L. Jones) sitting on a park bench emblazoned with an ad for the titular Saul. He’s approached by a man played by DJ Qualls, who asks him if he’s got any meth for sale. Badger lays out exactly why he suspects the man is an undercover cop (right down to two vans parked inconspicuously on the street that he believes to contain police surveillance equipment), then puts the potential buyer through a long series of tests designed to prove that he’s not a cop. The buyer feeds him the old line about how if you ask a cop if he’s a cop he legally has to say yes (“It’s in the constitution!” “The constitution of America?”). When Badger falls for it and sells the buyer some meth, we’ve already figured out what we always suspected—that the buyer was a cop all along—and we’re unsurprised to see Badger taken down (indeed, by the very vans he said would be his downfall in the first place).
What’s surprisingly elegant about the way McDonough shoots this scene (in a way that suggests Gould initially scripted it that way as well) is just how he lets you in on the fact that Qualls IS playing an undercover cop. The entire encounter is shot in a long shot from across the street, cars zipping by between the camera and the actors. At first, this just seems like it might be an arty attempt to do a scene already loaded with tension in one take in one shot, but just when you’re starting to think, “C’mon, let’s get moving already,” the camera JIGGLES, just a little bit, and that’s when you start to realize—before the cop even tricks Badger—that what we’re seeing isn’t the omniscient point of view of the audience, but, rather, the omniscient (as far as this park bench is concerned) point of view of the Albuquerque police department. Once that camera jiggles the first time, it moves and shifts even more, as the cop nearly loses control of the potential deal, then regains it with his flat-out lie about what’s in the constitution (which relies on his assumption that Badger is an idiot—Walt wouldn’t have fallen for it). We’re not just voyeurs; we’re voyeurs actively working at cross-purposes against the show’s purported heroes.
But that’s what Breaking Bad does so well, and it had to trick us to get to this point. One of the uneasiest aspects of the series’s first season was the idea that Walt had cancer, that his actions were somewhat forgivable because his ultimate motives (providing for his family after his death from the disease) were so good. To a degree, I think, the series had to build up those ideas both to get us into the series, whose high concept is a bit harder to stomach at first glance than similar antihero-driven series (like The Sopranos or The Shield) were, but also to allow for maximum impact in a second season that has revealed that almost everything Walt believed about why he was doing this was both a lie he was telling us and the audience. To a degree, Breaking Bad couldn’t remind us too often of just how badly Walt’s actions could hurt other innocent people at first. It had to make him SEEM sympathetic and then pull that rug out from under us in a way that some viewers may find somewhat cruel. The further Walt goes, the less he can pull back, the more people he draws into his web. But because we’ve been led to sympathize with him, we’re also forced to try to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing instead of just sitting in simple judgment of him. It’s one of the trickier balancing acts with a main character I’ve seen, and it’s remarkably clear just how much series creator Vince Gilligan trusts his creative team and, particularly, Cranston to get his message across.
That opening scene encapsulates another important theme in Breaking Bad. When Badger lays out the two vans that will ultimately be responsible for his arrest, we think that maybe he has just enough of a brain in his head to avoid getting caught. But, of course, he’s caught in exactly the way he said he would be. Walt also knew exactly how he would eventually get caught (hell, his brother-in-law is a DEA agent), but he figured he was smart enough to get out, and, even if he wasn’t, death was close enough at hand to provide the ultimate escape route. Now we’re seeing that there IS no escape. Walt will eventually be captured like Badger was, and every time he narrowly escapes, the retribution will be even worse. You might say that he still has the opportunity to cheat justice by dying, but I think the Badger scene is key in implicating us, the audience, as the people watching all of this going on. We’ve gone from saying, “Isn’t Walt such a sad man?” to “God, Walt’s a bastard” in under 20 episodes.
This also may be why the series is expanding its scope in season two, showing us more of the way Walt’s poison is infecting the streets of Albuquerque. Just as the police are the people who judge Badger when he makes the ill-advised drug sale, we are the ones who will end up judging Walt most harshly because we can see the full scope of everything he did. It’s not just a neat narrative trick the series pulled off by putting us in the lens of the police camera; it was thematically vital.
But enough about that. “Better Call Saul” scores big because it’s based, as the best Breaking Bad episodes are, around a relatively simple question: How do you protect your burgeoning criminal empire without killing the loyal foot soldier who seems likely to rat you out to the DEA? Badger’s sitting in that holding cell, and the DEA, led by the newly returned Hank (Dean Norris), is excited to get some information out of him on the mysterious Heisenberg. Realizing what they have on their hands, they essentially co-opt the investigation from the local police and begin cutting deals with Badger for information. Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) know that Badger knows enough to bring down their whole enterprise and land both of them in jail, but Jesse also has no desire to kill his friend (Walt initially seems appalled, but he then seems to warm slightly to the idea, though this is never verbalized and is played entirely in Cranston’s eyes).
So they decide to lean heavily on Badger’s lawyer, Saul Goodman (Odenkirk). Saul’s the kind of small-time lawyer who mostly makes his living off of finding loopholes in the law to get lower-class folks who get into accidents lots of cash (if his waiting room and commercials are any indication), but he’s also seemingly the self-appointed lawyer of the Albuquerque small-time criminal element. Walt and Jesse’s initial plan—bribe the lawyer to reject the reduced sentence plea designed to get Badger to fess up—isn’t the best plan in the universe, but it makes a sort of sense. Saul definitely seems unctuous enough to take a big enough bribe, and that might buy them enough time to figure out a way to deal with the situation. Saul, however, appears to have SOME standards, and he rejects Walt’s (who’s posing as Badger’s uncle) offer as morally repulsive.
The two jump to their alternate plan, which involves driving Saul into the desert in the RV (in a gorgeously lit sequence taking place in a desolate landscape only highlighted by the slight pinks of the disappearing sun) and pull a gun on him. He at first jabbers in Spanish about not being the enemy of the cartel (further foreshadowing, it would seem), but he floats the idea that Badger could just be killed, something that Walt and Jesse categorically reject. When an inopportune coughing fit links the masked man standing before him to Badger’s uncle from earlier in Saul’s eyes, he quickly becomes a confidante of the two and hatches an even more improbable scheme.
The plan to save Badger leads into another great, suspenseful scene at the park bench, this one shot and edited more conventionally as a mini-thriller. Badger is to identify a man who doesn’t mind going back to prison if the price is right as Heisenberg, but another man who looks similar enough to the description of the first man sits down, confusing Badger, who attempts to make the deal with that man. As the DEA agents (and DJ Qualls) look on, Walt realizes he needs to take action, using his connection to Hank to put everything in jeopardy so Jesse can give Badger the message that he’s in the wrong place and needs to be on the other bench. It’s a masterfully edited little scene, and watching Walt’s ability to improvise a solution to an unexpected problem, something he wasn’t so great at when the season began, is appreciated.
That said, the unspoken tension in the scene comes from the idea that the man who’s willing to go back into prison isn’t going to be out of prison every time. More of Walt and Jesse’s crew is going to get picked up, and it won’t be as easy to contain them in the future (especially since Hank seems doubtful that Jimmy In-and-Out is actually Heisenberg). This, in many ways, is the moment when Walt and Jesse must embrace the nature of their enterprise (the moment, as mentioned above, when all starts to go downhill). In the future, they probably WILL have to arrange for the deaths of those who are entangled in their webs if they want to protect themselves, and what began, ostensibly, as a way for one man to provide after his death will have turned him into just another criminal, just another drug lord, making his minions as expendable as he often feels in his own life. This is the moment when he could have accepted what was coming and didn’t. This was the last moment to retain just a little bit of sympathetic season one Walt. He let it pass.
The episode’s final moments focus on Walt back at school grading papers. Saul wanders into the room, and at first we fear that he has a kid in the school, but, no, he was just able to find Walt after hiring a PI for a few hours’ work. When he points out that if he could find Walt, pretty much anyone could, he’s both making an offer for himself as a sort of silent partner (he likens himself to The Godfather’s Tom Hagen) and suggesting that he can help Walt navigate the Albuquerque underworld better than Walt could on his own. It’s a nicely muted moment, for all its import. The shady lawyers who help criminals get away with what they get away with are a staple of crime fiction, and this is one of the first times we’re seeing a relationship like this at its inception. It’s like seeing Avon Barksdale meet Maury Levy for the first time or, OK, Vito Corleone meeting Tom Hagen. In the moment, it seems small, but it’s yet another seismic moment for Walter White, who may say he’s not a criminal but is acquiring the accoutrements of one rather rapidly.
Some other thoughts:
• Boy, look at all of the plot points I left out of the main piece. Let’s start with the women of the episode. Marie (Betsy Brandt) again had basically nothing to do, which is too bad, since she could be a pretty interesting character, but, curiously, Skyler (Anna Gunn) was also in and out of the episode, going off to work on a Saturday, dressed rather sultrily. Some are speculating that Skyler actually HAD an affair with her old boss whom she’s working with again. I don’t think the show is going there, but it’s an interesting tidbit to ponder. Finally, Jane (Krysten Ritter) and Jesse hooked up, but she also revealed that she’s a recovering addict who can’t handle him smoking pot around her. Apparently, she has some willpower, but not THAT MUCH. This is the sort of storyline that writes itself, sadly (I assume Jane will end up addicted to the blue meth), but it could be interesting if we see how it affects Jesse.
• Similarly, I didn’t say anything about the lovely scene between Walt and Hank, where Hank refused to get out of bed. He’s been somewhat demoted by being sent back to Albuquerque after his unfortunate stint in El Paso, but even in his panic-attack-weakened state, he seems like the one person who might put together that his brother-in-law is not who he says he is.
• McDonough is a longtime British TV director and camera operator who’s marking work on only his second American series with Breaking Bad (the first was Eleventh Hour). McDonough’s got a hell of an eye for composition, and I hope he returns for more episodes.
• For his part, Gould wrote the earlier highlight of this season, “Bit by a Dead Bee,” the episode where Walt and Jesse had to construct an alibi for their disappearance. Gould has a real sense for these sorts of process-driven episodes, where we see all of the tiny bits of work that go into a grand, master plan, and that makes him a valuable asset in the Breaking Bad writers’ stable. (For that matter, McDonough also directed “Bit by a Dead Bee.” He and Gould should just apparently always work together, especially if it always ends up as successfully as these two episodes did.)
• I hope Saul sticks around. Odenkirk’s a pretty busy guy, but Saul is the kind of darkly amusing character Breaking Bad does very well.
• I like the way the show is gradually suggesting the fury of the cartel without necessarily bringing them front and center just yet (though I assume they’re responsible for the apocalyptic flash-forwards we’ve been getting this season).
• A recent rewatch of the Gilligan-scripted X-Files episode “Small Potatoes” (the shapeshifter-who-impersonates-Mulder episode) suggests an overriding thematic concern on Gilligan’s part: that of the ordinary Joe with an extraordinary talent who ends up using that talent for less-than-upstanding purposes. Gilligan wrote a lot of X-Files episodes, and they didn’t all conform to this template, but enough of them did, if memory serves, to suggest at least a blog post.
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