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Better Call Saul is probably a great show. I say that in confusion, in a good way.
Because through three episodes, it hasn’t yet sunk in. It’s not just that electroshock has been given to one of Breaking Bad‘s main characters and revived, therefore, the original show’s expanding universe of storylines. It’s not just that Saul is surprisingly terrific in its own right, perhaps a better drama than Bad ever began as – really, the first season with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman was more a black comedy than it was an Emmy winner. It evolved from an out-of-nowhere critically acclaimed soap opera to perhaps the best show since The Sopranos, although I really think Mad Men deserves its say in that conversation, too.
Back to Better Call Saul, though: It’s like we’re being given deleted scenes to some movie we’ve watched over and over again, hoping there’s something more coming after the final credits. And guess what? Of course there’s more!
But unlike some failed attempt at a sequel – is Dumb and Dumber To terrible? I haven’t seen it; I’ll probably wait until I find it for free somewhere – that actually just taints the memory of the first, Better Call Saul is everything a fan of Breaking Bad hoped it’d be, and then some.
What does ‘some’ mean? Who knows. (That’s not a question, but a very practical statement.) I normally think the best shows give me exactly what I want, except it normally comes in a way I wouldn’t know to ask for. Like, in Breaking Bad, I didn’t know I’d want to see Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit, or to see two planes crash and tumble from the sky. But I did. And I was blown away by those final two episodes in Season 2 – I cracked above about how Vince Gilligan’s first show started as a sort of satire, almost. Well, once Jesse started shooting up heroin and Walter got into business with Gus Fring, Breaking Bad had graduated.
In Saul‘s case, the deleted scenes are as good as the theatrical version.
(It’s like watching Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Deathproof/Planet Terror double-bill in between the directors’ other projects. Like, we know it’s supposed to be kind of a joke or something, but is it okay if we love it, too? Even Better Call Saul‘s intro scene, where we get 10 seconds of some old 50’s guitar playing over some neon lights from the Eighties and an ashtray in a diner, that’s all so perfectly Tarantino. ‘Hey, I bet you didn’t think I could make Uma Thurman talk about a failed Charlie’s Angels rip-off for five minutes?’)
We’re not just seeing where Saul Goodman came from – apparently, it’s from a full head of hair and a charge that threatened him with a lifetime known as a ‘sex offender’ – but we’re seeing where Tuco came from, and we can already assume his henchman, Nacho, gets murdered sometime between now and 2008. We’re also falling in love with New Mexico, at the very least the American Southwest – it was hard to understand why Pinkman was so proud of being from ‘The A-B-Q’ a few years ago, but it’s easy now.
There’s nowhere else these shows could be set, and not just because the desert’s a conveniently vibrant place to kill someone and bury their body, but because it’s the final frontier. In all of America’s 50 states, nowhere is as open, empty, and catering to black smoke-spewing cars, great train robberies, or beautifully depressing Denny’s meet-ups as New Mexico. It’s simple osmosis – east coast cities like New York and Baltimore hogged The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire. L.A. and Vegas and Miami took everything else; Seattle got the 90’s. Now it’s the desert’s turn.
In Episode 3 – titled ‘Nacho’ – Saul Goodman is still Jimmy McGill. We learned he probably became a lawyer through some series following a near conviction for something gross and sexual, but was saved by his super lawyer big brother, Chuck. Before Chuck turned into Howard Hughes and lost his practice and his professional life, that is.
Then, time fast-forwards to the present. Which is still the past, because Better Call Saul is set in 2002. Or 2001, or something. (After September 11 and before Walter White.) Back in 2002, Jimmy is making booty calls to the blonde from his big brother’s old law firm – although it’s clear the attraction isn’t just one-sided; they’ve quite obviously shared an o-face a few times – and he’s trying his best to subtly warn her her new clients (the Kettlemans, who stole at least $1.5 million from the city of Albuquerque) may be in danger.
From who? From his client, of course. The guy named Nacho, who saved Jimmy’s life in the desert (when he was a prisoner of Tuco) only so he could team up with Jimmy to rob the Kettlemans later. But Jimmy doesn’t want to rob the Kettlemans – Jimmy wants to forget he ever met Nacho, or Tuco.
Of course, the blonde realizes Jimmy’s subtlety isn’t very subtle. She starts grilling him, and he says he misspoke and hangs up. Then, he calls the Kettlemans himself – he tells them they’re in danger and someone’s coming for their money. By the time morning arrives, the Kettlemans have disappeared, Nacho is in jail as the prime suspect in their disappearance, and Jimmy and the blonde start planning their way out of it – while still, of course, working against each other professionally.
I’m recapping fast and loose here, but shortly after Jimmy gets into another run-in with the parking lot attendant who becomes Mike ‘Mackerel Eyes’ Ehrmentraut in Breaking Bad. Jimmy stiffs Mike for the parking fee one day, so Mike returns serve by refusing to let him park the next day. Jimmy gets out of his car to throw down and Mike owns his ass, tossing him to the ground and holding him to the ground like he’s Pai Mei in Kill Bill. But when it comes time for Mike to press charges, he holds off once he hears Jimmy tells the other cops his story – that he thinks the Kettlemans have actually kidnapped themselves, pretending to be killed or less, to escape the rain of shit that’s inevitably going to rain down on them for robbing the sun-drenched people of Albuquerque.
Mike believes Jimmy’s story. Officially, he’s the only one who does, so far.
Encouraged, Jimmy goes walk-about behind the Kettlemans’ home. He rambles along to the voice of Johnny Cash as day turns into night in the American Southwest, until he stumbles upon a tent and a nerdy White family singing nerdy White people camping songs – ‘B-I-N-G-O, and Bingo was his name-o!’
It’s the Kettlemans, of course.
He dials it in, then opens the tent and proceeds to demand they come with him. And when Jimmy and Misses Kettleman start playing halt-and-catch-fire with the family’s backpack, they rip the thing in half… and to only Jimmy’s surprise, they spill $1.5 million cold hard cash all over the tent’s floor.
Jimmy says, “Yeahhhhhhh.” And the episode ends.
So you know what? I still have no idea where this series is going – although I definitely know how it’ll end, in some way, by 2008 or 2009.
And while I can’t wait for that, I can. Because I plan on enjoying the ride. And I hope this isn’t the last time we hear Johnny Cash’s voice.