BETTER CALL SAUL: “Magic Man,” “50% Off”

Television’s best show is back.

If there’s one real criticism I have of Better Call Saul, it’s that the show has a tendency to be almost too cute with its season openers. Aside from the pilot, every premiere has been deliberately slow, picking up at the exact moment the last season ended and painstakingly setting up the tones and themes of the season to come. I suppose it’s not out of character for a show this detail-oriented to take its time, but it comes across to me as trolling. A bit of post-modern, Sopranos style anti-climax to whet our collective appetites.

Maybe it’s just the near two-year wait for this season that is doing this to me, because there’s still a lot of meat to be found in Sunday’s first episode. Focused mostly on three central characters (but not the three you’d think), “Magic Man” of course starts and ends with the Jimmy/Kim relationship. It jumps in right at the end of “Winner” with Jimmy legally changing his name to Saul Goodman, despite Kim’s protests, then arranging a…client outreach program of sorts, despite Kim’s protests. Finally, we get a scene of Jimmy/Saul (this episode marks what I think is the actual, official birth of Saul Goodman) helping Kim scare one of her clients into taking a deal with DA, despite Kim’s protests.

None of this bodes very well for the future of their relationship. We end with Kim taking stock of her life on yet another stairwell, wondering how she allowed things to get this bad (not to say that this isn’t all Jimmy’s problem, but you know, she’s obviously the smarter and more capable of the two).

Our second plotline is a two-hander. It focuses first on Lalo, who I found just a little bit cartoonish when he burst onto the scene last season. A little too much of a Hail Fellow Well Met token evil guy, who pretends to be polite and friendly but very quickly explodes with violent rage. A guy jumping through ceilings like the Xenomorph is a hard character to parse in this setting.

All of that was I think based on my initial interpretation of him as a Nacho’s antagonist, instead of Mike’s. Mike is the closest thing this universe has to a superhero, the most competent person in the history of television, who always has a plan and a backup plan and knows what everyone’s going to do all the time. A character like that could actually use an antagonist who shares his attention to detail, curiosity and creative flair, with just a dash of impulsive craziness added in. That certainly seems to be where the show is heading, with Gus scrambling to cover for the Werner Ziegler catastrophe and come up with a satisfactory explanation for what Lalo managed to overhear at the end of last season. It seems to be enough to pacify Juan Bolsa, but Lalo knows just enough to know he’s being lied to, and the thought seems to fill him with a new kind of murderous glee.

Unfortunately for Gus, he may not have his fixer on hand to deal with this developing situation for a while. The core conceit of the slow infatuation between Gus and Mike is that we know the ending already. We know that Mike will end up being the backbone of the entire Fring Organization. What we don’t know is just how much of Mike’s soul will have to die to get there.

During a lot of last season, I saw plenty of speculation that Werner was supposed to be an analogue for Walt, what with him sharing a first name with Walt’s criminal alias, Werner Heisenberg. In the end, though, I feel like Kai was much more the Walt analogue here, a grumpy, overly cocky showoff who Mike immediately dislikes. In this timeline, Mike punches him out, like he wanted to from the start, as all of Werner’s men are gathered up and shipped back to Germany, and Kai tries to placate Mr. Ehrmantraut by saying that Werner “deserved his fate.” It’s interesting to note that when Casper, the other notably named Zielger crew member, stands up to Mike in his own way, saying that their former leader was “worth 50 times” what Mike is, Mike does not object. I think if anything, Werner was the analogue for Mike, for the person he thinks he was before his son died, before he ruined his life and his career. A family man, earnest and hard-working and maybe a little too friendly with the wrong sorts of people. A man that Mike respected a hell of a lot more than the Eurotrash doofuses he just sent home or the besuited specter he works for. And Mike just killed that man, that part of himself, and buried him the desert, under all the stars that are visible in New Mexico.

The tragedy of Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler hasn’t been fully written yet, but I think the saddest thing about it is how Jimmy doesn’t start down the path to becoming Saul without Kim’s initial encouragement. I think she understands, but maybe not entirely, that one of the biggest reasons Saul Goodman exists is because Giselle Saint Clair and Viktor do. Those are the aliases she made up when they started pulling cons for fun, and that kind of positive reinforcement, as much as it helped Jimmy in the moment, is ultimately what pushes him to become the monster that Saul Goodman really is. Not the same kind of monster as Heisenberg, poisoning children and murdering witnesses, but a monster all the same. A twisted caricature of a once decent man, who turns everything in his life that was ever good, every relationship he ever cherished, into absolute shit.

How terrible it is for everyone involved that Saul Goodman is a hell of a lawyer. In a deliberate inversion of the sad Public Defender Slippin’ Jimmy montages of Season 1, we find Saul Goodman, Albuquerque’s newest sensation, holding court in the courthouse like an Aaron Sorkin character, talking to everyone about everything, blowing off Howard Hamlin and crushing poor Deputy DA Oakley into dust. He’s a new man, completely unburdened by being Chuck McGill’s dipshit kid brother, but he’s still the same Slippin’ Jimmy. After ADA Erickson dismisses him earlier in the day, he manages to bribe a maintenance man into manufacturing an elevator malfunction, trapping her with him long enough to agree to work out deals for some of his clients. Of course, these aren’t good deals. These aren’t the kind of deals Season 1 Jimmy fought and clawed and scrapped for. These aren’t even the kind of deals he made with Tuco in the desert, saving those dumb kids’ lives in exchange for a couple horrific broken legs. Saul just wants to churn as many clients through the grinder as he can, so he can get more clients. The inflatable Statue of Liberty looms in the distance, like two vast and legless trunks of stone.

  • Nacho gets more to do in “50% Off,” ingratiating himself to Lalo on Gus’s command. He came into this show as the ultimate self-made man, a respected soldier in the Salamanca crew with a series of successful side hustles. Now he’s a pawn trapped between two warring factions, ready to be thrown away like a piece of meat at a moment’s notice. Nice to see he can still intimidate Jimmy when he needs to.
  • I’m assuming Nacho is grabbing Saul off the street to help him sort out the Krazy-8 situation, which I’m also assuming will bring him in conflict with Hank Schrader. (remember, Krazy-8 was revealed to be a DEA snitch in Breaking Bad). However it plays out, it’s kind of perfect that Saul’s “50% Off” stunt inadvertently pulled him back into the Cartel’s orbit. Classic Saul plotting.
  • Mike, after just burying the part of himself that had a family, having to immediately confront that — culminating in him yelling at poor Kaylee when she asks too many questions about her dad — feels like the sort of cosmic prank that got played on Walter so many times during Breaking Bad. I wonder if this is the reason Mike seemingly wasn’t allowed to see Kaylee in the original run, the reason why he had to ask permission to see her way back in “Caballo Sin Nombre.”
  • The scene where Jimmy (I’m just gonna call him that when he’s with Kim or Nacho or some other figure from his past) and Kim look at that house was almost impossible to watch. Knowing that there’s literally no hope for these two is just soul-rending. I mean, most couples know that that proverbial Damoclean Sword is hanging over their relationship most of the time, but we know. At this point, all we can hope is that Kim doesn’t die.
  • I didn’t touch on the season-opening Gene segment because I honestly have no idea what to make of it, but one final shoutout to Robert Forster for his quick cameo. There is another universe where Gene hops back into that van and we get to spend a few scant minutes with Ed and his vacuum shop, but alas. All things are fleeting. A fond farewell to one of the truly great character actors of this or any other time.
  • When Gene says he’ll “handle it himself,” which version of himself is he referring to? Certainly not the meek Cinnabon manager. Does he mean Slippin’ Jimmy? Viktor? The guy pretending to be Kevin Costner? Saul the Cell Phone guy? Albuquerque’s most annoying lawyer? At a certain point, how many times can you reinvent yourself before it stops working?

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