Better Call Saul, Episode 3

Jimmy McGill has always cared about one thing above all else, his own self-preservation. In the third episode of Better Call Saul, we see not just a jailed Jimmy McGill in a flashback even further in the past begging his brother, Chuck, to help him out of a legal jam, but the show’s current Jimmy McGill in total barter for survival mode. Obviously if you haven’t seen the episode yet, you probably should wait to read this recap, because it’s chock full of spoilers.

If Breaking Bad taught us one thing about Saul Goodman (McGill), it was that his crafty ways of trying to escape the bad situations he puts himself in almost always involve plenty of shenanigans and almost always work in the short term and leave him deeper in trouble in the long term. In “Nacho,” we dipped back into the spicy queso of Saul’s desire to save his own skin.  

“I’m no hero,” he says to himself during the episode.

McGill knows he isn’t and will never be a white knight, but he consistently has a crisis of conscience relative to how his actions affect others and also when he knows of danger that could greatly affect someone else. All of it seems to stem from the conversation we see in last night’s cold open, where powerful lawyer Chuck is reluctant to help his incarcerated brother because Jimmy doesn’t seem to understand the seriousness of the mistakes that landed him behind bars. It’s not until he hears Jimmy show some emotion, some remorse, and true acknowledgement of those errors that he softens and considers offering his assistance.

Back in Albuquerque, Jimmy McGill has that first “angel on my right shoulder” moment as he sips cucumber water in the nail salon that doubles as his office and frequent sleeping quarters. His conversation with Nacho Varga last week left him concerned that his new acquaintance might go after the Kettleman family, clients that chose Hamlin’s firm (incidentally also his brother’s firm) over McGill himself. Last week, his scheme to weasel a payday out of them left him staring at the barrel of Tuco’s gun and in a pure barter situation, trying to convince the criminals, including Varga, to spare the lives of his young adult co-conspirators.

He calls Kim Wexler for small talk and because his “good side” is driving him nuts, and near the end of the brief 2 AM conversation, he lets it slip that he’s a little worried about Hamlin’s clients, the ones the bigger firm stole from him, because somebody might want to make a run at the 1.6 million dollars they embezzled. That’s of course the reason they sought out defense attorneys in the first place.

It’s pretty amazing how many dangerous situations Jimmy McGill finds himself in, and anybody with a pulse knows the treachery toll will only grow as the show continues to evolve.

As episode three unfolds, Jimmy uses an empty paper towel roll, a paper towel as a screen, and a rubber band, to disguise his own voice in a phone call to that family to warn them that they might not be safe because of their ill gotten gains. Hilariously, and in one of the moments of levity that bridge between heavy drama, we find out that the crude voice modulation he used in this moment was also a “robot sex voice” he used for audial coitus with Kim. Their relationship is going to be one to watch going forward, as they have a past together, they do respect one another and care for each other, but both also have mild distrust of the other’s motives. But, they also bang on the phone, and no doubt they’ve done the high thread count sheet tango as well. Considering Jimmy’s financial situation, perhaps it’s 200 or less in retrospect.

The Kettleman family disappears that same night in an apparent home invasion, including the couple’s two children. Kim remembers the conversation with Jimmy and inquires further, hoping he would provide any information if he had it. All of this is shot beautifully and the music selection underneath McGill’s phone call to Nacho’s number, written on his matchbook for when he “realized he was in the game,” was exceptional. Varga has been arrested and McGill is his attorney, though grabbing Jimmy proves to be a little more difficult for the investigating detectives. Jimmy believes his client did the deed, but Nacho quickly calls him a piece of shit, literally, for ratting him out and setting him up. Varga didn’t do it, and in another barter moment, tells McGill that while he was there casing the place for a robbery, Jimmy must have told someone else, including the crew that actually kidnapped the family. McGill is confused but quickly realizes he needs to figure it out because Varga threatens his life if he isn’t on the street by the end of the day. Nacho is dangerous, like extremely dangerous. He’s also sharp, which makes him very compelling even in limited screen time.

In addition to self-preservation, McGill has a bullshit detector and a ton of street smarts. He visits the Kettleman house and thinks, based on the lack of the daughter’s favorite doll which he continually sees in every photo she’s in, there’s a possibility the couple faked the kidnapping in order to maintain their money and avoid any problems. The remainder of the episode focuses on Jimmy attempting to prove he’s right, getting help from an unlikely source in the parking lot attendant he’s sparred with since the pilot episode, who he finds out used to be a Philadelphia police officer. He also finds out he’s no match physically for this “Mike” character, which as veterans of Breaking Bad, we well know. J-Banks is a beast. I remember thinking as Jimmy outsmarted Mike early to avoid having to go back for validation, does this guy not know who he’s dealing with? The show sometimes necessitates a short memory. We have to remember we know more than the characters on screen about who they are or who they become. No, Jimmy McGill has no idea who Mike Ehrmantraut actually is, not yet, but soon enough.

Mike’s explanation in “Nacho” of a past investigation that informed his feelings on this one are both illuminating to the current predicament but are also a subtle callback to the Saul pilot and to the end of Breaking Bad:

MIKE: Look, when I was still on the job back in Philly, we had this case…this bookie disappeared after the Super Bowl…Cowboys-Steelers. Took six million dollars in bets and skipped town when things didn’t go his way. Now everybody thought he was on the beach in the Bahamas or dead in the Jersey Pine Barrens…wasn’t the case. He was two doors down from where he lived in a foreclosed house. Hid there for six months without anyone suspecting.

JIMMY: But why? Why not run?

MIKE: Now that’s what everybody expects. It’s human nature to want to stay close to home…and if this Kettleman figured out how to do it, that’s what he did. Nobody wants to leave home.

Indeed, no one wants to leave home, even when they’re in it up to their eyeballs and they’re involved with a meth empire or a criminal enterprise. Back to the first six minutes of the pilot last Sunday, no one wants to leave home. Perhaps that’s why “Gene” seems so miserable with his moustache and his job at the Omaha Cinnabon and his silent life as he looks out into a winter snowfall. He had to leave. When he watches his old commercials, nostalgia and misery creep in all over again. He had something he loved. He no longer has any chance of that existence. His barter for survival did keep him alive, but at what cost? He has nothing left. He may never have anything again.

As the episode closes, Mike’s belief in McGill’s story and his own idea, that it’s very likely the family never even left the neighborhood, leads to the discovery. In the final seconds, a tug of war between Jimmy and Betsy Kettleman (Julie Ann Emery) over a red cloth bag that eventually busts open, sending stacks of cash into the air and into a pile on the ground.

Now, how much is it going to cost the Kettlemans for McGill to keep that secret? Maybe it’ll also require official legal representation as payment. He did make a phone call to someone, presumably Kim, before he confronted them. We’ll find out next week.

This was an excellent episode of television. Better Call Saul is striking all the right chords. It’s shot perfectly; it’s paced with confidence in the structure of its story. It’s just flat out good. AMC’s first foray into Monday drama of any import is going magnificently. It’s the first true piece of appointment viewing on a Monday in quite some time. It’s already becoming a “can’t wait for next week” kind of experience. Episode 3 was my favorite thus far, from Terry McDonough’s direction to the writing. By the way, Terry directed the Breaking Bad episode where Saul Goodman first appeared. That story also happened to be written by Peter Gould. It’s lovely when things come full circle.

The choice of Elvis Presley’s “Find Out What’s Happening” as Jimmy searches the woods for the Kettlemans is a stroke of genius. It works on multiple levels, including “I’ll give you just another day,” which could match with Nacho’s threat. I might be reaching there, but I’d like to think that much thought gets put into everything, especially when Gilligan and Gould are associated with it. That song is also great on its own. The Downliners Sect version in 1964 is solid also if you want to check that out.

Better Call Saul presents a challenge for its staff in that the viewer already knows how the show ends, or at least where it’s likely to end, namely in a handshake with Walter White. Telling a story where the conclusion is known can make things difficult and at times precarious for consistent viewership, but thus far Saul has handled its situation with precision and nearly flawless execution. And Odenkirk, Banks, Seehorn, Mando, McKean, basically everybody we’re seeing on screen, they’re killing it.

I love what I’m seeing, truly. Saul makes Monday night feel like Sunday night, and that’s a major accomplishment.

I’m @GuyNamedJason on Twitter. You’ll want to follow me there. Help me convince the cops that I’m right and to stop looking into Nacho.

Written by Jason Martin