Michael Mando

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 305: “Chicanery”

In the days since the fifth episode of Better Call Saul‘s third season aired I’ve convinced myself that it’s one of the best episodes of television that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. “Chicanery” is great, almost in spite of how little action actually happens on the screen–most of the action takes place during one scene inside the courtroom of Jimmy’s disbarment hearing–although these characters advance exponentially over the course of 45 minutes. It’s cliche to say that lines are drawn and things will never be the same, yet it rings true for this episode of monumental importance.

The action in the courtroom is what surprised and impressed me that most on both a narrative and cinematic standpoint. Director Daniel Sackheim and his cinematographer Marshall Adams manage to make every shot from that tight courtroom feel claustrophobic and vital, never extraneous and consistently gorgeous. There’s a real struggle with realistically lighting dark rooms due to Chuck’s sensitivity, yet the crew of Better Call Saul does it each week with aplomb. This week it’s not only the courtroom, but  Chuck’s home in a cold open flashback to a dinner with Rebecca, now Chuck’s ex-wife. Not only is the the cold open lit almost entirely by candlelight as Chuck lies to Rebecca about his condition, but it’s also tinged with blue, a unique choice for flashback, but one that the show has used so well.

Each scene in this episode is heart-wrenching, but the cold open with Rebecca might take the prize. The show tries very hard to make Chuck relatable, or at the very least understandable, and it succeeds, yet it still can’t make Chuck likable. I don’t think that’s necessarily the intention of the writers–his actions are insufferable and his motives are often frustrating, but we understand that his tumultuous relationship with his brother and with the Law define who he is. These two come to a head during the episode’s final act, as Jimmy cross-examines his brother.

The entire episode builds to this one set piece. Watching the episode again, days later, “Chicanery” has a narratively cinematic vibe that is unparalleled. Each character gets their own scene before the dramatic tension of the hearing–Jimmy as he employs the familiar Huell Babineaux, Kim as she saves face to Mesa Verde by opening up to them about her legal predicament, and Hamlin telling Chuck, in lesser words, that he cares most about his firm, and not the man whose surname follows his own in the firm’s name. Unlike other episodes this season, the absence of characters from our other storyline (Nacho, Mike, Gus) doesn’t feel jarring, and indeed it feels necessary. Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, and Bob Odenkirk are remarkable in this episode, and all should submit this episode for consideration for this year’s Emmy nominations.

The tension between Chuck and Jimmy holds this episode together. They little ways they one up each other is both petty and awesome in the truest sense of the word. Jimmy’s actions in this episode have the potential to ruin Chuck’s life; Jimmy embarrasses him publicly in the legal setting that Chuck most admires, and he also embarrasses him in front of the woman he still loves when Jimmy brings in Rebecca to view the proceedings. Jimmy may have tainted Chuck’s life in a way that he cannot recover from, yet Chuck has been striving to do the same thing throughout the series. It’s Chuck’s own folly that he’s not as quick as his brother is.

A+. Television critics and scholars will be talking about this episode long after Better Call Saul has ended. 

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 304: “Sabrosito”

In the few days since this episode has aired (it’s taken me a bit longer than usual to digest this one), I have called it one of the most satisfying episodes of television I’ve ever seen. Three days after its initial airing, I’m sticking to my initial praise: “Sabrosito” is the best episode of Better Call Saul‘s third season, so far, and manages to piece together the show’s interweaving storylines in a way that I knew was capable, but was itching to see since the first second of the season’s first episode “Mabel.”

As per usual, Mike Ehrmantraut is the glue that holds these two superficially different shows together. The first half of this week’s episode focused solely on Mike’s new friendemy Gustavo Fring and his dealings with Hector Salamanca, as well as Don Eladio (Steven Bauer, yet another Breaking Bad reprisal). We see the initial jealousy form between Hector and Gustavo here, a brilliantly intelligent touch that I never really thought we’d see explored in such detail, as Hector realizes that Gus is quickly becoming Don Eladio’s favorite drug smuggler, even though Hector has named his ice cream business after Eladio–“The Winking Greek. ”

Something that I’m frequently amazed with while watching this show is how well it makes you care for characters whose fates you are already aware of. The teaser of “Sabrosito,” which is entirely in Spanish, features no characters whose fates we are unsure of–Hector, Eladio, and Gus will all die within the decade. Still, I care for these characters, especially Mike, who doesn’t appear until a bit later. I’m captivated by their actions, thanks in large part due to the consistently wonderful ways they’re written–this episode was written by Jonathan Glazer.

After leaving Don Eladio’s home, a location I never though I’d see again, we’re transported back into Los Pollos Hermanos, where Nacho appears for the first time this season. I’ve missed him dearly and, although he doesn’t do much, his presence is always appreciated as Michael Mando just has a way about standing there and looking menacing. The scene in Los Pollos where Hector intimidates the customers and employees is so well done and so captivating on numerous levels that I had to remind myself I was watching Better Call Saul and not an episode of Breaking Bad. Show co-creator Vince Gilligan is on record as saying that “Sabrosito” is like the 64th episode of Breaking Bad, and I can see why.

Part of this feeling is because Jimmy and Kim do not appear until more than halfway through the episode, an incredibly brave choice that I’ve noted in Better Call Saul before. Even when Jimmy does appear though, the presence of Mike continues to remind audiences that much more is at work in this universe than Jimmy’s conflict with his brother. Mike posing as a handyman and fixing Chuck’s broken down door, all the while playing spy for Kim and Jimmy is hilarious and comically jarring as he and Chuck had never appeared in a scene together before. There is more going on in this storyline than meets the eye, as evidenced by a fair amount of suspicious conversation about the price of a cassette tape, yet the writers and directors of Better Call Saul will reveal this information slowly, milking every second of their limited ten episode per season run.

Although it is a near perfect episode of television, “Sabrosito” still feels like two separate television shows in many ways. There’s not quite the same kind of concrete uniformity as in Breaking Bad (everything revolved around Walter in that show), yet that can be attributed to the fact that there are two main characters in Better Call Saul: Jimmy and Mike. For now I’ll enjoy getting two TV shows for the price of one, but I anxiously await the moment when Jimmy is drawn into the Gustavo Fring cycle of scum and villainy.

A.

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 303: “Sunk Costs”

I’m of the opinion that there will never be any kind of equilibrium for any of these characters, at least not for the duration of Better Call Saul. Even Saul Goodman won’t get much equilibrium in his future, as Walter White will certainly come along, yet in this timeline, too, it feels impossible. There will always be a case, always something to work out, and always something to prevent Jimmy, our flawed hero, from succeeding in his life.

Still, the ending of “Sunk Costs” almost feels like it could be happy one. Kim and Jimmy share a cigarette, hatch a plan, and hold hands to form an “M” with their arms, an undeniably sweet moment in an episode that hadn’t been full of them for Jimmy. He’s already been arrested, booked, and released on bail, so this moment with Kim feels all the more important to him. He’s realized that Chuck is likely aiming to disbar him, yet he and Kim have a line of defense. Only time will tell if it succeeds–smart money is that no, it will not–yet there’s a semblance of happiness among the partners at law, and maybe that’s what they need as troubled waters sit in their way. Speaking of Kim, there’s a brilliant Bond-esque montage of Kim getting herself ready in the morning, as she’s sleeping in the office and getting ready for her day in the gym across the street. She walks out of gym, clean and refreshed, along with the people covered in sweat from working out. I half-expected the building to blow up behind her as she left.

Mike, on the other hand, seems to be willing to wade in the troubled waters. Towards the beginning of the episode, Gus, who has still not been officially given his name, offers Mike the chance to get out, and to leave the Salamancas behind. Gus doesn’t want Hector Salamanca dead, not yet at least, but he doesn’t want Mike messing around with him either. Giancarlo Esposito, who has been promoted to the main cast starting with this episode, is still so terrifying as Gus, especially when he’s dressed in all black and framed against the desert. Again, the show is phenomenal at de-escalating and not giving us what we want. It would be all too easy for Gus and Mike to willingly team up together yet that isn’t the case, although Mike certainly pulls off an elaborate stab at the Salamanca ice cream truck/drug dealing operation. It’ll take a while for Gus and Mike to fully embrace each other’s unique talents, just like everything else on this show.

Chuck continues to become one of the more despicable villains in the Gilligan-verse, which is saying a lot when people like Gus Fring and Walter White are walking around. I think the reason that Chuck’s villainy feels so cold is because he still thinks he’s doing something good for Jimmy. Keeping Jimmy in the mailroom is exactly the same thing as pressing charges against him, with he methodically does this episode, and Chuck justifies his own actions by saying that he’s helping his brother out. I anticipated Jimmy to call Chuck a “pig fucker” in this episode, yet his ice-cold assessment of Chuck’s future health issues is even worse.

I briefly noted last week that certain characters have yet to make any kind of impact on the show so far this season, specifically Michael Mando’s Nacho (and Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin was also absent this week). There is a delicate balance that shows with large casts of characters have to juggle week-in and week-out to effectively showcase all of its working pieces, and I do think Better Call Saul does that well, yet this week it felt a little off. An “off” episode of Better Call Saul is better than just about anything on television though, and the show barrels on to the ever-promising future.

B.

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 302 – “Witness”

I often find myself asking what I want from this series. I have not been shy in saying that I think the first two seasons of Better Call Saul were superior in almost every way to Breaking Bad and I have loved watching characters like Kim and Nacho go toe to toe with BB stalwarts Saul and Mike, yet I still love the thrill as BCS gets closer to its predecessor. Last night’s episode, “Witness,” directed by Vince Gilligan and written by Thomas Schanuz, was no exception to my perilous situation and I say without irony that I had a big, dopey smile on my face the entire time. Better Call Saul got as close as possible to Breaking Bad last night, yet I don’t think it will stay that way as the season progresses. It sure as hell was a fun ride, though.

As everyone with a pulse knew would happen, Giancarlo Esposito and his character Gustavo Fring made their triumphant return to the world of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the extended scene of his return is one of the best the show has ever done. Eager to explore his criminal side, Jimmy agrees to help Mike spy on a man whom he has tracked to Los Pollos Hermanos, a familiar sight. Jimmy, whose willingness to break bad makes him very much like Saul Goodman but whose inability to stay innocuous makes him very much like Jimmy McGill, almost stumbles into the chicken restaurant following the man that Mike has tracked. Ordering food and a coffee, Jimmy sits down yet keeps his eyes on his man the entire time, a rookie mistake in the world of tailing and an obvious one under the watchful eye of Gus Fring. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how often I laughed at Jimmy try to stay under-the-radar and how funny I found this entire scene to be. Why would Jimmy think it’s a good idea to move closer to someone and then stare at them the entire time if he’s trying to not be obvious? Bob Odenkirk’s performance here is perfectly awkward and one almost forgets that Gus Fring is about to pop out and confront him. It’s great to see Esposito in this character once more, yet my eyes were on Jimmy and his almost-transformation. He doesn’t know just how far this path will take him, but his youthful innocent exudes and he’s more than willing to let the criminal side of his character break through the legal facade he tries to show the world. Jimmy even wants to tail the target, and barely takes no for an answer when Mike tells him he doesn’t need his help. “I’ve got your back,” this eager Jimmy/Saul hybrid says to Mike. Jimmy is no Saul, not yet, and this is an early lesson in stealth and criminality that bites Mike quite immediately and will no doubt implicate Jimmy in the long run.

Meanwhile, Jimmy has more important things to worry about than the mustard-colored suit that confronted him in Los Pollos Hermanos. Chuck has played the long con (which only needed eight days to come to fruition) by banking on Ernesto running to Jimmy and Kim to tell them about Chuck’s tape recording. Kim willfully becomes Jimmy’s legal representation, despite the fact that she knows he’s guilty, yet he isn’t interested in legal action. He drives to Chucks, breaks in and destroys the tape, all in front of Howard Hamlin and a bodyguard hired by HHM. This admission of guilt will get Jimmy in trouble, as well as his break-in of his brother’s home, and the wall protecting Jimmy from the world is starting to crumble.

The episode opens and closes with scenes in Chuck’s home, although his villainy shines through the episode. It feels strange calling Chuck a villain, and his evolution into an antagonist of the show is one of the more careful evolutions that Gilligan & Co. have done. I frequently hate Chuck for being a foil to Jimmy, yet I feel bad for him as well. He’s obviously sick, his wife left him (as Jimmy calls out to him in this episode), and his morals are seemingly in the best place. Michael McKean plays him so well, and he’s a sympathetic character, but he’s also a sonofabitch, and his faux-goodness is the worst thing about him.

“Witness” is careful in moving the plot forward, and more or less is an extension of last week’s “Mabel” in its set up of the entire season. In many ways this episode is thrilling and does a perfect job at increasing tension, yet it also continues the ignoring on Michael Mando’s Nacho character. It makes sense that, through his involvement with the Salamanca’s, Nacho would also be involved with Fring, yet I don’t see how he’ll play into this season just yet. Mando’s placement in the main cast has always felt off–he only appeared in four episodes of the ten episode first season–yet he’s a great character and I look forward to seeing more of him. Will that be next week? Will this show become all about Gus from this point on? How will Jimmy worm his way out of the punishment of the law? I can’t wait to find out.

A- 

Review: Better Call Saul, Season Three, Episode One – “Mabel”

Many reviewers have noted that this season of Better Call Saul feels like a slow burn–or at the very least, the first two episodes feel as such because that’s all that was released to critics in advance. After the first episode I can agree with my contemporaries, and, although the particularly slow nature of “Mabel” should be acknowledged, Better Call Saul has always taken its sweet time in giving the audience what it wants, and expects.

This is a show that spends the first five minutes of each season with black and white shots of a mall in Omaha, Nebraska, following a balding man named Gene as he performs menial tasks. In the cold open for this episode, Gene (the future Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk) eats a sandwich on the second floor of his mall when a kid runs by, DVDs falling out of his oversized coat that screams “I have stolen electronics.” Gene watches silently and, like always, there’s some very complex acting going on as Gene debates whether or not to protect the kid or to rat him out to the police. Ultimately Gene’s too scared to defy the police and tells them where the kid is, but Saul peeks out from behind the apron just a tad as Gene yells at the kid to get a lawyer. Show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have teased that these flash-forwards of Gene could become more frequent, and I would actually be surprised if we did not see more of black-and-white Omaha this season.

The rest of the episode can be summed up in a few sentences. Chuck plans to do something ominous with the tape of Jimmy confessing to altering the Mesa Verde documents. Jimmy faces trouble from the marine featured in last season’s “Fifi” and Kim’s perfectionist nature is contrasted with Jimmy. Mike tracks down the mystery person who left the “Don’t” note on his car in last season’s finale. Mike’s time in the episode–almost half, which has become the norm for this series–is especially slow, and often features Mike sitting alone and waiting for something to happen, with very little dialogue making the final cut. Jonathan Banks gets plenty of time to be methodical this episode, and I am monumentally impressed with how much he can convey through his body language. Vince Gilligan obviously thinks the same thing and this episode, which he co-wrote and directed, showcases the beauty of the simple acts of Mike’s life.

I was particularly attached to Kim in this episode as well, although she too is given relatively little to do. Burdened with the knowledge that she’s advancing her career because of an illegal act, Kim tries to draw as little attention to herself as possible, even making the preliminary paperwork for her Mesa Verde casework perfect down to the punctuation (should she use a semi-colon? I’m fond of the dash myself.) This season will not be an easy one for Kim as Jimmy comes closer to Saul Goodman. Although Rhea Seehorn has mentioned in recent interviews that it’s possible for her character to have a relationship with Saul Goodman during the timeline of Breaking Bad, I don’t see that happening. Kim can’t handle Jimmy’s antics, and every day she’s reminded of the ultimate burden that he will bring on her career–in “Mabel,” she takes a few of his elderly clients, although she hadn’t planned on it. As we’re accustomed to, Rhea Seehorn is tremendous even in the little amount of screen time she gets. If I had had a blog last season, it would have been non-stop ranting about Seehorn because she is truly remarkable in this role, and I’ve often described her as the best female character on television.

More so than ever Better Call Saul is building to something. It’s common knowledge that we’ll meet a younger Gustavo Fring in the next episode, yet this show does a great job of not letting that fact define the season. “Mabel” is a bit of a filler episode, yet one that avoids “filler” stereotypes by being a very solid hour of television in its own right, and one that successfully has its audience asking for more.

A-.