TV Episode Review: “Better Call Saul” “Pimento” (01.09, 2015)

Written by Thomas Schnauz

Directed by Thomas Schnauz

The big question left after the last episode of Better Call Saul was exactly what Chuck dropping that box meant. Was he shocked to realize that his “illness” had gone away, and about to celebrate? Was he panicking at the realization that he had gone outside and now going to run inside? Was he going to go into a catatonic state and so leave Jimmy to handle a case that’s clearly too big for two men, let alone one, to handle the case alone.

That question was answered immediately in “Pimento,” seeing Jimmy and Chuck sitting on a bench near Chuck’s home. Chuck is clearly ill-at-ease, but he’s surviving. Jimmy is telling him to kick off his shoes and relax. It’s a simple scene that tells us what we need to know: Chuck isn’t about to get the power turned back on in his house, but he knows now that he has at least some capacity to go into the world of electricity.

But what this episode is really about is Jimmy discovering that Chuck is not in his legal corner. As I said earlier, it was Chuck, not Howard, who rejected Jimmy at HHM. And now that Jimmy has an enormous class action suit that requires a bigger firm to execute properly, it’s again not Howard who rejects him, even if he is willing to take the heat for Chuck’s decision. Jimmy’s hatred aimed at Howard all these years has actually been for Howard being a good friend to Chuck and accepting all the heat for Chuck’s own rejection of his brother. The asshole in charge of HHM who has created this feud with Jimmy is actually Chuck, not Howard, who now comes across as a truly decent guy for his willingness to help Chuck pull the wool over Jimmy’s eyes.

Early in the season, it felt like Michael McKean was wasted on this series in a role that didn’t require anything, but as the season has gone on he has become indispensable to the series’s success. The look he gives when returning to the firm–the look of a powerful feudal lord returning to his kingdom–belies just how much he loves his own position within the legal community and also his relationship with his brother. Then, his look watching Howard reject Jimmy makes it clear, even if you ignore all of the background we have, that he’s watching something he orchestrated. And Patrick Fabian, whose performance has generally been easy to ignore in the robotic Howard Hamlin, had to show a subtle level of discomfort, unable even to say, “I’ve decided,” because that would be a lie, and Howard isn’t really the bastard Jimmy thought he was. And then his ridiculous attempt to turn James Bond villain on Kim, saying, “I don’t care” is so clearly rehearsed and insincere that it adds even more to our sense of Howard.

But the heart of this episode lies in the dramatic Jimmy-Chuck confrontation wherein Chuck reveals himself to Jimmy, saying, “You’re not a real lawyer!” While his position would have been understandable back when Jimmy first passed the bar, at this point Jimmy has proven that he is at the very least a competent attorney with a great work ethic. But when he mentions Jimmy’s education, he reveals himself, not questioning the school’s accreditation or academic reputation but instead saying, “I worked my ass off,” suggesting that Jimmy didn’t put in the kind of work in law school that he did. Chuck isn’t really worried about Jimmy doing a bad job or even Jimmy ruining the reputation of HHM. He’s worried about maintaining his position as the successful brother. Like the brothers in Dream Theater’s rock opera, one is a success and the other a failure, and Chuck is not going to allow their positions to change.

All season, we have been wondering how the talented-but-unsuccessful Jimmy McGill would so soon become the hightly-sought-after criminal attorney Saul Goodman, and we may have just seen the turning point. Jimmy wasn’t going to change his name partly because he was so proud of his brother, but now that he’s out to burn that bridge, he has a reason to change his name. And he now has an infusion of cash coming from HHM that could pay for updating his office and advertising to recognize his new name. In the end, it’s not some falling from grace or sudden realization that all the money was in representing criminals that made him change–it was the discovery of his brother’s betrayal of him.

Meanwhile, Mike has completed his transformation from the comic relief he offered earlier in the season to the same world-weary streetwise badass he was on Breaking Bad. He disarmed and beat the crap out of an armed bodyguard-type without breaking a sweat and got a greenhorn criminal through a deal unscathed based on his own intelligence and willingness to do the work required to reduce the risk involved. And he did it with the kind of logic and quiet confidence that always controlled him in Breaking Bad.

Notes

  • “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.” Wow, that’s a vicious line. And quite untrue–lawyers are under more scrutiny than most people, so really that’s a good place to put someone who is something of a reformed scam artist.
  • Something that will probably interest very few: I don’t remember anymore how exactly, but I think we know that Chuck went to the University of New Mexico. That is a top-100 law school, so there is at least some reason for Chuck’s ego on the subject. However, I went to a top-100 law school (at the time that I went there), too–it’s not as impressive as he’d like to think.
  • Why on earth did Howard tell Kim? Did it just prey on his conscience that much? Really? That seems weird.
  • “Erin Brockovich and Ed Masry brought in heavy hitters from Los Angeles to bring that case home!” Was that a sly comment about the mediocre film?
  • It’s “pimiento,” not “pimento.” It’s a pepper, not a cheese. I see that a pimiento sandwich is made of cheese, but pimiento itself is not the cheese.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Say My Name” (05.07, 2012)

“Say My Name” (05.07, 2012)

Written by Thomas Schnauz (Previous Episodes: “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Shotgun,” “Bug,” and “End Times”)

Directed by Thomas Schnauz (No Previous Episodes)

Once again, a longtime Breaking Bad writer gets a shot behind the camera in this one, and Thomas Schnauz turns out to be up to the task. This episode looks like it could easily have been made by Michelle MacLaren or Adam Bernstein, and that’s about as high praise as a director could get on this show. He doesn’t show any of the timid lack of imagination that George Mastras showed a couple of episodes ago, but he also doesn’t show the penchant for overreach that Bryan Cranston has shown. It’s a tightrope that most of this show’s directors have successfully walked for years, but it’s been difficult for some rare or first-time directors, and yet Schnauz succeeds.

This episode contains one of the two major plot points that were clearly coming this half-season as it began: Heisenberg killing Mike (the other is Hank’s discovery of Walt’s identity), and it spends much of the episode implausibly setting up that confrontation.

It starts off with a desert stand-off like we’ve seen so many times before on this show as Heisenberg sells Mike’s old Fring contact on a partnership whereby this new partner essentially buys out Mike’s share. He forces the buyer into calling him Heisenberg as a sign of his own dominance, but we see in this scene that Heisenberg isn’t quite as big as he thinks: the buyer considers just killing him in the desert right then, pointing out that without Heisenberg the blue stuff goes off the market, which is what he wanted in the first place. While he’s able to muscle his way through the conversation by making a strained analogy to Coca-Cola and suggesting that the buyer doesn’t really want to live in a world without the blue meth, the fact that there is no logical reason Heisenberg can give for his life is enough to tell us that he’s not on firm ground. Could this guy be the reason Walter White needs a machine gun in his trunk in a year?

The contrived series of events required to get to the final confrontation between the bald men is not strong enough to make up for its implausibility. Mike’s lawyer gets caught making payments and the DEA is convinced he will roll. Mike already had his exit strategy in place, of course, but with this new possible evidence, Hank is able to thwart Mike’s attempted exit plan by watching for him at the airports. So, fairly enough, Mike calls Saul to get the “go bag” he needs to make his escape. However, somehow Heisenberg ends up doing it, with no explanation of why he is doing it or how on earth Mike would have agreed to it. The worst part about this moment is that there actually is a logical explanation for why he would need to be the one. The DEA knows that Jesse is connected in some way to the blue meth, and so may decide based on its stronger position to keep watch on him.  Meanwhile, Hank is really out to get Mike at this point, and knows that Mike’s lawyer is Saul, so it makes perfect sense that they would watch for any suspicious activity by Saul as well. That sequence of reasoning could explain Heisenberg being the one to deliver Mike his go bag, but instead we’re left with the impression that he said, “I’ll do it,” intending to kill Mike and then Mike just said, “Oh, of course. I have always trusted you, Mr. Heisenbeg!” It’s a frustrating, very un-Breaking Bad sequence that really hurts the episode.

However, then we get the confrontation. Heisenberg demands the names of Mike’s people whom he is paying off in prison and when Mike refuses to tell him and points out that Heisenberg is to blame for the mess their situation now is, Heisenberg shoots him with a gun he stole from Mike’s go bag. Walter White suddenly makes an appearance and runs to a dying Mike, apologizing and saying that he just realized that he could get the names from Lydia anyway. Mike tells him to shut up so that he can die in peace, a perfect exit for one of this show’s largest characters. This sequence is fantastic and would rank among the best in the show’s history were it not marred by the contrived way in which the show brought it about. It’s also a great showcase for Bryan Cranston, as he gets his first opportunity to show some real emotion this season, transforming back into Walter White for just a minute.

Outside of that confrontation, we get a great sign of growth from Jesse. Heisenberg doesn’t bother to negotiate his exit money from the partnership and expects Jesse just to follow him because that’s what he’s always been able to get from Jesse. But it doesn’t work. Jesse has gotten enough strength to stand up to Heisenberg’s manipulations, a powerful moment for the character that essentially completes his metamorphosis through the show’s run. Aaron Paul, unsurprisingly, also plays this moment perfectly.

Todd takes Jesse’s place in the cook, but worries Heisenberg by proving a diligent and enthusiastic worker who doesn’t care about his money. He’s looking a lot like Gale Boetticher, which is not a good sign for his future.

Overall, this was a good episode, but it took a major, major shortcut. Part of what makes the show great is its unwillingness to use those short cuts, so it’s a problem when it uses one, even if it’s one that can be explained, like this one.

Notes

  • It never made any sense to me for Mike to pick a different lawyer to do his drops instead of Saul. Sure, he doesn’t trust Saul, but Mike doesn’t exactly seem the type to trust anybody, does he? It was nice to see Saul rip him for it, almost like an acknowledgement of its silliness by the writers.
  • Seeing Jesse finally ignore Heisenberg’s manipulation gave me a thought I often have about this show: I don’t know if it would have worked, but it definitely would have been a completely different show if Jesse had been killed off when Vince Gilligan planned. It also puts them in different enough positions that we can see them beginning to prep themselves like opposite sides in a war.
  • When Todd was first introduced, I thought he would turn out to be an undercover cop. Now, I think that was clearly wrong, but I still think there’s a reason he’s been introduced. I suspect that he is going be a major part of the DEA’s case against Heisenberg somehow, if Heisenberg doesn’t kill him first.