Once again, Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and their band of brilliant and creative Albuquerqians have masterfully placed another priceless jewel into the mosaic that is the Breaking Bad Universe, known henceforth as the BBU.
Better Call Saul (BCS), is far from simply the backstory of how Irish Chicago native Jimmy McGill became the ABQ’s drug dealer’s best friend and GOOJCCINCF (get out of jail card cheaply, if not completely free) and criminal rabbi, Saul Goodman. Each week that passes, shows how in fact, Jimmy/Saul (I’m hoping the name change happens at the earliest in Season 2’s finale, if not sometime in Season 3, or hell, Season 4. Those who were surprised that McGill wasn’t shown walking out of his urologist’s office (or whoever does circumcisions on adult males) by the end of Season 1 simply didn’t get the point. BCS isn’t just the story of how Saul got his name, it’s the origin story for Breaking Bad.
I know, I know, there are those out there who subscribe to the theory that in fact, Breaking Bad is the prequel to The Walking Dead, as explained here. Whether or not their lovably twisted minds are correct, after only 16 episodes of this television masterpiece, I don’t think it’s putting too fine a point on it, saying BCS isn’t the prequel to BB, but rather, BB is the sequel to BCS. No disrespect to the finest television show ever produced intended.
Okay, enough gushing and praise. Let’s break it down.
SPOILERS FOLLOW – If you haven’t watched every episode of both shows (and the entire run of BB at least TWICE), what the HELL are you doing here? Close the browser window, wipe your browsing history and go back to your iPad version of Wired (the March issue is just out), Buzzfeed or Godlike Productions. The spoilers below will quite possibly ruin your enjoyment of both shows.
S1E5 has Kim Wexler serving her time (and possibly waiting for execution) in the Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill dungeon, otherwise known as “Doc Review,” where her considerable legal expertise is spent going over page after page of billing reports, ensuring investors in Newell Rubbermaid, the company who makes the Sharpie highlighter, don’t have to rely on just Social Security to make their monthly payments to the Sandpiper Crossings of the world when they retire. We’re, of course, thinking Chuck McGill put her there, because in the Season 1 finale, we learned Jimmy’s older brother was the dick after all, and Howard Hamlin a good guy. Okay, reevaluate. Not so cut and dry.
Ep4 told the story of Mike’s run in with the fists of Tuco Salamanca, the psycho who would later kidnap Walt and Jesse, spiriting them off to the shack in the badlands, where we first heard Tio Salamanca’s bell and experienced his voiceless fury. In Ep5, we see Mike healing, and realize the at this point, grill-less drug thug’s appearance in Season 1 and now Season 2, aren’t just heart-warming cameos. Tuco’s relationship with Mike is an important lynchpin in the Breaking Bad mythology, as well as an ironic take on the one piece of advice Walter White took from Mike. More on that later.
Jimmy is guilt-ridden because Kim has taken the heat for his going off the reservation and running the TV ad he produced to gather more litigants for the Sandpiper Crossing case. Absolutely unfair, because Kim is truly blameless. Her responsibility for not telling Howard that Jimmy had produced and aired the commercial (quite tasteful, especially considering the TV ads Saul Goodman would run in the coming years and available on the web, here), so HHM’s Senior -Asshat- Partner could make points by tipping off Davis & Mane’s guitar-playing Senior -Asshat- Partner is sketchy at best, especially for lawyers who work so hard to stay so firmly planted in ethical territory.
So, Kim is up to her neck in highlighter yellow and Jimmy has two strikes on him at D&M and has picked up a babysitter, watching every breath he takes, every move he makes, and every Beanie Baby he tries to find a new mommy for. Jimmy, whose brother Chuck rightly tells Kim, has a “big heart,” doesn’t care about himself. He’s worried about Kim, and suggests she sue HH&M. He’s even drafted the initial suit, and delivers it to her in the bowels of Castle Asshat. Kim’s reply is that suing her boss might work, but who would hire her? Filing suit would be committing career suicide.
Kim’s solution, which has an interesting parallel to Mike Ehrmantraut’s handling of Nacho’s Tuco problem, is to put the lawsuit away, and dig herself out of the doghouse the hard way, by bringing in a new whale of a client, and we see her on her cellphone, using up cases of post-it notes, mining contacts, but only finding men who want to date her. Back in the dungeon, she takes another look at the lawsuit, but doing so only motivates her to work the cell harder (I don’t remember 2002 mobile phones having such a long battery life, not to mention unlimited minutes plans were hard to come by), until success finds our girl, in the form of a BIG new, bank client, whose legal issues, according not to Chuck, promise HH&M “months, if not years” of work.
Mission accomplished, what follows is a perfect meeting with the new client and Doc Review is a soon-to-be distant memory, right?
Wrong. After waving good-bye to their new whale, Kim suggests some first steps in servicing the client, Howard coldly replies, not even looking her in the eye as he walked back into the building that she was way too busy in Doc Review to worry about something as trivial as her new $250,000 a year client.
Ouch. This guy holds a grudge, doesn’t he? If you’re keeping score, looks like Howard is the dick again.
Meanwhile, Mike is having his own troubles with someone who doesn’t forgive. While having a leisurely breakfast (in the same diner, by the way, that Jimmy courted his first clients as a freshly minted lawyer, AND where Hank Schrader begged Skyler to turn herself over to the DEA in order to save herself from Walt in BB), an out of focus figure strides in and invites himself to sit down. As the camera comes around to reveal the man’s identity, I have to say, I was once again blinded by the brilliance of Gilligan and his writers.
It was Tio Salamanca, not yet consigned to a wheelchair, relying on a bell and a one letter at a time alphabet grid to communicate. Tio’s nephew Tuco, had been masterfully baited by Mike, in order to send him to jail, giving his partner, Nacho, free control of the cartel’s meth business. For this, Mike had been paid 25 large, half of what Nacho had wanted to pay the former cop (and apparently, a Vietnam Vet sniper, which we learn after a scene with BB’s favorite motel gun dealer) $50K to kill Tuco. Either haunted by all those he had killed in the past, or thinking a hit was more than required (trying really hard not to use the term “overkill”), Mike makes a decision that he learns will haunt him even more than killing Tuco would have. Tio is offering Television’s all-time greatest bad-ass a grand total of $5,000 to tell the cops that it wasn’t Tuco’s gun on the ground in the parking lot of the Mexican restaurant where the younger hothead had committed a brutal beat down of our hero, but instead Mike’s. This would cancel out the weapons charge, leaving just battery as Tuco’s crime. Far less time in prison. Mike pointed out that he would then be on the line for a gun charge, but Tio reminded him he was a retired cop, and the police would certainly go easy on him.
Before Tio presented his plan, he apologized to Mike for his nephew’s behavior, oh behalf of his entire family. Tio knew that even if the ex-cop hadn’t already sussed out Tuco’s connections, the apology would certainly make them clear.
As Tio gets up from the table and walks out of the diner, leaving a couple big bills to cover the check, the camera stays on Mike, who takes a sip of coffee, and raises his clenched fists just above the table, which is probably the most agitation we’ve ever seen from the perfectly calm, cool and collected Mr. Ehrmantraut’s. It’s as close as we ever get to the superb beyond words Jonathan Banks chewing scenery. Calm down there cowboy! That Banks could communicate such frustration and rage in such a subtle gesture is a testament to his acting skills. The man is a master.
In the Season 3 finale of Breaking Bad, titled “No Half Measures,” Mike explains the importance of never settling for halfway, when you should be permanently solving a problem. He tells the story of his own education about the concept, recalling how, when he had a wife-beating scumbag on his knees in a field, his service weapon pointed at the man’s head, he settled for the half-measure of letting the guy off with the warning to never touch his wife again, under penalty of death. Two weeks later, the guy killed the poor woman, Mike tells Walt, teaching him to never settle for half measures. I understand why this particular situation would not have made a good example in the teachable moment with Walt, but now I’m sure this little drama was on Mike’s mind during the conversation with Walt six or seven years in the BB future. It was no coincidence that the bounty Nacho paid Mike for letting Tuco mess up the pretty Ehrmantraut face was half that he offered for putting a bullet in the craziest branch of the Salamanca family tree. Sitting across the diner table from Tio, Mike had to be thinking “no half measures, ever again.”
Now, you’re probably wondering “Okay, what’s with the episode title, Rebecca?” Actually, it partially explains the question raised in Ep 3, Cobbler. Remember the beginning of the episode, where Chuck is playing the piano. The older McGill brother is frustrated that, even though his skills are almost as mad as Skinny Pete’s, who, in an ep of BB, is hired by Jesse to buy transport cases for meth lab equipment, in the process show’s he’s a talented keyboardist. Back in BCS, the piece Chuck is playing is an accompaniment for a violinist, whose name, “Rebecca,” is on the sheet music.
The opening of Ep5 is flashback, shot in black and white, and shows Chuck and his wife, Rebecca, happily married, electric lights and appliances working, with no apparent physical effects on Chuck. It’s a warm and comfortable domestic scene, the pair preparing dinner, expecting a guest who turns out to be none other than Jimmy, freshly arrived in the ABQ and having just completed his first week of office boy employment at Hamilton, Hmlin and McGill. It’s clearly pre-breakdown for Chuck, since there’s not an aluminum blanket anywhere to be seen.
The scene shows that Chuck’s lack of faith in Jimmy is nothing new. He preps Rebecca for meeting his younger, ne’er do well brother, going so far as to establish a code gesture Rebecca is to use to let Chuck know she’s had enough of the younger McGill, a tug of her ear that tells Chuck to “get this clown out of our home.” In reality, Rebecca is quite taken by Jimmy, laughing at his jokes, clearly considering him a breath of fresh air in an otherwise rather stuffy existence, something Chuck just can’t stand.
This theme echoes later, in the present day, when Chuck attempts to give Kim some insight into his brother’s character. It was a sad moment, watching Chuck stab Jimmy in the back with the woman the younger McGill clearly loves and cares deeply for. Chuck tells her a tale of Jimmy pilfering $14,000 from their father’s small business, implying that the theft ultimately caused their father to go broke, destroying his spirit to the point of causing their beloved father’s demise not long after losing his business. After somehow finding a couple square inches of Jimmy’s back he hasn’t already plunged a sharp instrument into, Chuck lets Kim out of the “doghouse” and welcomes her back to the adult lawyer table. Kim’s expression is unreadable, and at this point, we can’t be sure if she thinks Chuck is a complete, asshole, or believes she’s learned the Ruth about Jimmy. Perhaps both is her conclusion. Since Kim Wexler is nowhere to be seen or heard in BB, something comes between the two young lovers, causing them to part, so I know we’ll eventually figure it out.
I don’t believe it’s the last we’ll hear about the $14K. My gut tells me that when the truth of the story comes out, the pilferage will ultimately land at the feet of the oldest McGill son. Something like Jimmy swiped the money to pay Chuck’s tuition, or something like that. Of the two, Chuck is the most deeply flawed, his weird problem with electricity aside, HH&M’s Senior Partner is a messed up dude. Believe me, Jimmy will turn out to be the well-balanced one.
I admit that for a short time, I thought Kim was in BB, in the form of Saul’s long-suffering receptionist, Francesca. I considered the possibility that Kim loses her license to practice law, depression puts 50 pounds on her and instills in her a dejected, world-weary outlook on life, having to answer Saul’s phone and look at his lowlife clients all day. I no longer believe that’s the case, however. Whatever causes the split between Kim and Jimmy will be profound and permanent. I know, however, that I’ll be hoping, at some point, a beautiful blonde lady will find herself in Omaha, craving a Cinnebon fix.
We all have our dreams.
Kurt Sutter is a sick, twisted whack-job…and I love him like a brother. Very few TV showrunners today have the stones to go into production with a show that is certain to produce such volumes of notes from the network (even FX). He does it though, and to be honest, I do NOT want to see what they convinced him The Bastard Executioner, Tuesday nights at 10pm on FX, he could do without. Really Kurt, leave that out of Blue-Ray Extras. Please.
At least three times, watching the two hour pilot episode and the excellent second week’s show, the thought that even Sons of Anarchy‘s Happy might well have had to close his eye and turn away, and remember, Happy loved Chuckie’s chili mixed with some guy’s head they were hiding from the cops. TBE in some ways, makes SOA look like CHiPs, with a few more guys.
Not really, but I think you understand where I’m headed with this. The Bastard Executioner is some damn good stuff.
Sutter’s real-life spouse, Katy Sagal stars, playing an Eastern European healer/witch, who is obviously more than meets the eye. I think we’ll find that if DNA testing had been available in medieval Wales, would have shown her mom-like attention towards main character, Wilkin Brattle…uh…justified. Note: This is NOT spoiler, since I have no friggin’ idea how the show goes. I just have my theories. Katy absolutely shines in her portrayal of Annora of the Alders, even though she appears to be working sans-makeup, which would have to be the result of makeup, of course. She’s beautiful in a stark way.
Miss Sagal’s husband, showrunner Kurt Sutter, who plays her companion/husband/boy-toy/whatever, “The Dark Mute,” continues to play out some weird self-mutilation thing as Annora’s husband? Bodyguard? In Sons, he played the always-incarcerated “Big Otto” Delaney, who over the course of the series, lost an eye, bit off his own tongue to make a point, and took a bunch of lead in a big house last stand.
The story has the potential to be a big one. It’s starting with a very limited mission of vengeance that, as these things so often do, gets complicated. I’m hooked. A word to the wise, however, as I said earlier, it’s not for the weak of stomach. I don’t think I’m exaggerating much when I say it makes Game of Thrones look like an animated Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In the last season of SOA, Sutter shocked many with a storyline that included a school mass shooting that occurred just off camera.
How do I put this? The Bastard Executioner wastes no time in striding right across that line in the pilot. This is going to be a big show.
“Sons of Anarchy” is a great show, because it doesn’t try to portray the MC world as it truly exists, but, as Paris Barclay and Kurt Sutter say, a “great comic book.” A character on “Vikings” has it right when he says “Everything begins with stories,” and the mythology of “Sons” has power that extends beyond the world of bikers. There’s so much story told underneath and in between the narrative, and that is what is powerful, not all the speed and guns.
For instance, two or three times in this final season, we’ve seen the guys in the garage working on restoring JT’s 1946 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, the bike John was killed on, that the bike not just be the unfired rifle hanging above the fireplace mantle that Checkov references. I believe the SOA mythology will wrap with Jax dying on that bike. Jax’s riding a big bagger Road King this season isn’t just about his needing a replacement bike after his parked Dyna Wide Glide was run over by that pimp from early in the season. He’s become the leader he was destined to become, and the Road KING helps reveal that. Riding a bike with bags also, I think, represents the additional *baggage* he’s accumulated since taking the gavel. It’s not just for the convenience of having saddlebags in which to hide the gun he needed to kill Damen Pope in the Season 5 finale. Unto his last, Jax’s stepfather Clay, who was responsible for JT’s death, always rode a Dyna. He was never the legitimate King of SAMCRO. Jax is, and that has changed him. I believe it will ultimately kill him.
Gemma was always grateful that “the family flaw,” a heart defect that she survived, but killed Jax’s younger brother Thomas, didn’t manifest in her oldest son. What she has realized, over the past seven season of “Sons,” though, is that a darker flaw, passed down from JT to his firstborn, an existential question shared with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, did, and it’s one that if not answered correctly, will be Jax’s undoing. JT let the flaw overcome him and drive him to despair and the loss of his will to fight for his life. Jax took the opposite road, attacking the question head-on, determined to overpower it. The correct response lies in the middle of these two choices, and it’s one that the audience hopes Able will discover. Fix the problems you can, while not letting those things you can’t control destroy you.
Like “The Shield” before it, a show Kurt Sutter wrote for, “Sons” is a masterclass in telling a story on television, and as a writer, I’ve learned a lot from it. I hope to work with KS someday.
Update: ***Spoiler*** Looks like I was right, though I admit that when I wrote this, I had no preminition that *The Shield’s* Michael Chiklis would play a part. I also realized, in posting this update, that Jax hadn’t replaced his Dyna Super Glide with a Road King, but a Harley Road Glide. Sorry about that.