I’ve been waiting all season for Vince Gilligan to Gilligan us. To pull the rug out from under the audience and to send shock waves out around the world, as he was wont to do with stunning yet unpredictable regularity with Breaking Bad. After watching episode 8, part of me dared to think: maybe it isn’t that show. Maybe, all along, we’ve been watching this show that is fun for a minute, as they say now, only a minute has lasted 8 great weeks. Maybe, just maybe, Gilligan’s latest trick is to reverse expectation and reach into another bag of tricks almost entirely, thus alienating the willfully cruel and obtuse latecomers to Breaking Bad who choked it out, threatening to ruin all its good with cries for heads on sticks and mass genocide that in their fan fiction (IMDB comment boards) would begin with Sklyer, and not spare even baby Holly. The comments about Walter Jr. were hate speech. Mike was MacGyver. Walter was a very twisted Batman. The Huell stuff was funny, though.
It occurred to me that I’d have to have been wrong, then, all these weeks, and publicly wrong in my weekly write up (though, never happy to be so wrong, I guess). But no, I’m not going to stop holding my breath just yet, or lower my guard, until we are clear of the 10 episodes of the first season. I’ve been through a lot of Gilligan torment, just like all of you. I’ve been through Jane’s season THREE separate times. I’ve been through enough to know I’ll never watch the final season again, and that in my heart, Jesse will always be bottoming out on that go-cart track alone, friendless and hurtling along on an infinite loop to Fever Ray. I think we watchers became both scarred and desensitized as a culture through those years, somehow, in a way that’s irreversible. So with every delightful bingo game or branded jello serving, with the dumpster diving and the Mrs. Doubtfire phone answering falsetto that never, ever gets any less funny, Better Call Saul is a show to watch in the moment, as the moment, one way another, just cannot last. Maybe it’s a moment that lasts 9.5 episodes and then the hammer will drop. Maybe it’s a two season moment. I can hold my breath a really long time. As long as it lasts, it’s a truly great moment for the scarred, and yet, desensitized faithful. For we’ve been rewarded with a miracle: an 80’s style crime caper show that’s been missed since those great days of Magnum P.I, The Rockford Files, Hart to Hart, Simon & Simon, Remington Steele, The A-Team and the Godfather of ’em all, Columbo. And many more that made our nights, that bonded families, that were good fun without any of the modern-day casual nihilism.
So, mercifully, in the moment of episode 8, we didn’t go dark. Jimmy McGill’s devastated outburst at the end of episode 7 was not the dark turn into the Saul Goodman skin and loud suits of the future. Even as he saw his current dream of his own firm fail as he did the right thing for a friend (through some creatively shady legal maneuverings, very slip-and-fall Jimmy, but still, in the moral right) Jimmy made my heart soar by returning to his “young Paul Newman as Matlock white suit” (!!!) again this week, and, delightfully, also, to his skilled, kind practice of helping the elderly in a way that would make Matlock proud. As the Breaking Bad wannabe Heisenbergs in the digital space raged on, Jimmy delivered us something as gentle on the soul as Murder She Wrote, something that I could almost watch with my grandmother. It’s like something out of TV Guide, those little one line synopses of perfect tapioca: At the Sandpiper Retirement Home, Jimmy discovers client overbilling that might even be fraud and a class action suit. Or Jimmy calls in a favor with Kim and gets her to do some research and printing for him, for what me a game-changing legal case. We are having a halcyon moment, aren’t we? And this reviewer loves every light suited moment of it.
This is drama, and comedy, for the wounded world, people. This is Breaking Good. In a never ending bleak landscape of TV and film that Vince Gilligan helped to create several new very dark shades in, Better Call Saul is like agua in the desert.
The biggest drama of the episode involves a very funny legal letter written on the backing of a notepad and toilet paper, and the sudden mental shift that occurs with Chuck when he finds himself fully engaged with legal work, his synapses firing again with obscure case law like the wizard he is (in a beautifully written scene) and, concurrently, with small, OCD-type tasks like recreating shredded documents in an ingeniously crafted low-fi tool of his own design. There is a time when a survivalist, electricity-phobic lawyer with ample time on his hands is the perfect ingredient to build what looks like a career-making case, and this is one of them. Chuck, though, is not to be trusted. His historic condescension of his younger brother that we see in flashbacks confirms, rather brutally, what we already knew. Jimmy’s prescribed family role is not one he’s not meant to climb out of. He’s the family screw up, while Chuck is the star. Each role depends upon the conceit of the other. This brotherly, lawyerly, collaboration is bound to shatter as Chuck’s illness did for a moment (or maybe he’s all better from now on, leaving Jimmy to his nail salon storage room, or worse). The dry nuances of illness and sick time and pro bono and Chuck’s partnership with HHM will no doubt come to trouble Jimmy’s newfound fraternal relationship and to this very promising grab at the legal and reputation building brass ring, as it has before. Kim will probably stay tethered to the corporate dysfunction that is less scary than a lovable loser who rocks a white suit almost as elegantly as a young Paul Newman.
But maybe, just maybe, all bets are off.
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