The Sounds of Sirens
This week’s Better Call Saul invokes The Graduate to tell a coming of age story in which our favorite struggling attorney turns down a promising career in “Plastics!” to go hang out by the pool and self-destruct.
Season 2 begins swiftly with our Jimmy, having gained some measure of respect and credibility from his work in the Sandpiper case, being offered a high-paying job with a prestigious law firm. He reacts by turning into the main character from a Slobs vs. Snobs 80s comedy, then seducing Kim (momentarily at least) to the Dark Side of the Pool. In the end, though, Jimmy puts away his Raybans and embraces the phony adult life (cue the pensive Simon & Garfunkel guitars!) –or does he? (Well, we already kind of know from the other TV show that he doesn’t, but still. He orders a fancy desk, and it appears for the moment that he is quite keen on selling out and living legit.)
Vince Gilligan specializes in stories that obsess over their characters’ identities (The X-Files’ Small Potatoes, the conceptual entirety of Breaking Bad, and now Better Call Saul). So it’s no surprise that with the highly anticipated debut of BCS’s sophomore season, he and Peter Gould would not only avoid giving their audience a big, showy splash of series mythology and slapstick action but would instead offer an existential psychodrama. They delve into the most important questions at the heart of their dark comic noir: Who is Saul Goodman, who is Jimmy McGill, and who the hell exactly is Gene the Cinnabon Manager? By episode’s end, those answers still aren’t abundantly clear, but the fun of Better Call Saul is all in the asking.
No Exit from Omaha
Another installment of the Black & White Adventures of Gene, the future former Saul Goodman, now the dejected manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha in a mall directed by Jim Jarmusch. Gilligan and Gould used this flash-forward storyline to great effect in the opening moments of Season One, and this latest chapter adds another tale of woe to the serial, reasserting the notion that Jimmy’s (and Saul’s) misdeeds are going to ultimately land him in a future so bleak Radiohead just wrote an album about it.
Gene/Jimmy/Saul, living a sad, quiet life of no alarms and no surprises, is such a mouse (cowering below the radar in the aftermath of the whole Heisenberg combustion) that he’s forced to obey lame handwritten signs on storage room doors and to live in continued fear of making too much noise, drawing too much attention, or being anyone to notice. Hell indeed for a man who fetishizes designer suits and quivers at the sight of his own face on 50-foot billboards. Once a card-carrying ambulance-chaser, he is now forced to be fearful of the sounds of sirens.
I’ve actually had a theory since the first episode that Jimmy’s life as Gene of Omaha is a dream, a mental digression, a momentary flash in the mind of Saul immediately following the climactic events of Breaking Bad. Saul, if you’ll recall, tells Walter White (in their very last scene together) that if he’s lucky (after his full association with the notorious Heisenberg has been made public), he’ll end up managing a Cinnabon in Omaha. It seems odd to me that he would literally end up doing what he sardonically depicts as his best-case living hell. I believe he’ll awaken from this imagined fate at some point and follow his inner Ben Braddock to go bust up Kim’s wedding and lock her stuffy family in the church and–well, maybe he won’t do all those things exactly, but you know, something!
Whether you buy my theory as literal twist or symbolic Bergmanesque hokum, there’s no denying, at least, that this newest seasonal prologue frames itself as a Kafka nightmare, casting its lead as a rat in a maze being test-run back and forth between a chance at instant but perilous freedom and the option of easy safety through complacent waiting. For the moment, the rat chooses safety, but the reveal at scene’s end implies he may not stay at that end of the cage for long. The significance of the writing on the wall may be in its suggesting that “Saul Goodman” is (and always was) the true personality in this melee of competing souls. Saul is who Jimmy was always meant to be and who Gene is meant to be again. Saul Goodman, no matter which personality is doing time as the public face of the act, is always there roiling just under the surface.
On the QT
The Tao of Tarantino has long loomed large in all things Bad, and that spiritual guidance continues to infuse character and content in Better Call Saul. Spotting the Tarantino references has been a favorite pastime of mine for the run of both series, and this week we got two and a half doozies.
Diner culture is a recurring thematic callback to Tarantino’s iconic 90s movies, and in the midst of yet another scene between two characters talking over Formica, we get the most direct and overt QT reference yet in the expanding Breaking Bad-verse. As Jimmy is explaining his pending life as a charming layabout with a fondness for cabana wear (didn’t every 80s movie star a charming layabout in a Hawaiian shirt?), Kim compares him directly to “Jules in Pulp Fiction” mirroring the Kung Fu Bum conversation between Jules and Vincent at the end of the namedropped flick. (I particularly like the irony of riffing on Pulp Fiction, now 20-plus-years old and a relic of the now-popularly remembered 90s when Pulp itself was part of the 90s trend of remembering and riffing on the then 20-year-old 70s!)
Two subtler references (in my humble opinion) in the very same scene can be found in the overlay of dialogue that occurs while Jimmy and Kim talk with the sound of a familiar voice speaking in the background (an echo of the same diner scene in Pulp where the Jules/Vincent and Pumpkin/Honeybun conversations lapse over one another in each couple’s featured scene) and Jimmy’s sudden fixation with needing to try a $50 shot of tequila (shades of Vincent Vega’s preoccupation with Mia Wallace’s $5 vanilla shake at Jack Rabbit Slim’s during an earlier sequence in, yet again, Pulp Fiction).
Breaking Bad Shout-Outs
Speaking of that familiar voice and that pricey-as-hell liquor, it’s “Ken Wins!” the obnoxious Bluetooth-sporting day-trader who will later irk Walter White to the point of setting the consummate douchebag’s overpriced car on fire. In this earlier story, the cocksure Ken is taken for a quick confidence ride by the newly resuscitated Slippin’ Jimmy (in an effort to show Kim the allure of the wild side and the potential thrill of being partners in crime). As far as long cons go, this one’s pretty short but still significant. Not only is old Mr. Winning a callback to the days of blue meth and roses, but the bill he gets stuck with is for the previously mentioned $50-a-shot tequila. The whole damn bottle’s worth.
And that tequila, an invented brand called Zafiro Añejo (which translates roughly to Sapphires Plus), is the very same brand poisoned by one Gustavo Fring and used to kill off the majority of the Juarez drug cartel in Salud, one of BB’s most celebrated (and just plain kick-ass) episodes.
Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?
I haven’t exactly worked out the whole Graduate/Switch analogy yet, but I’m pretty sure that Saul is Dustin Hoffman, Kim is Elaine, and, I dunno, the tequila is somehow Mrs. Robinson, I guess. I’ll get back to you on that; it’s a theory in progress. But I’ll bet somewhere in the episode’s cache of stolen baseball cards, there’s a goddam Joltin’ Joe.
No Humvees For Old Men
The glimpses we got in “Switch” of this season’s Mike-centric B-story were intriguing (if a little light on Mike himself). At the outset, the gregarious Mr. Ehrmantraut parts ways (for the time being) with “Pryce” the nouveau noir black-market pill-pusher who is quickly at the mercy of Nacho or Taco or whatever the name of that guy from Tuco’s gang is. Where this story will go, and whether or not it will be as satisfying as the one-two punch of season one’s Kettleman Krime Family dramedy and Mike’s haunting family backstory, remains to be seen. One thing, though, is for certain. In this near Coen-like world of hardened killers, remorseless sociopaths, would-be crooks, and men in over their heads, for the time being at least, all roads appear to lead to Tuco Salamanca. A good thing for the storyline’s dramatic prospects. There are few villains on basic cable scarier and more unpredictably brutal than Tuco.
Oh My God, Kim & Jimmy Totally Did It! How Have We Not Talked About This Yet?!
Okay, so the episode starts proper with Jimmy demanding (in as awkward a scene as director Thomas Schnauz could create) to know if he and Kim, his closest friend and budding romantic interest from season one, have any kind of non-platonic future together. Kim evades the question. Which is never good. Jimmy, whether he wants to admit it and despite what happens a few scenes later, is thoroughly and completely Friend Zoned.
But, after polishing off that whole bottle of absurdly expensive, occasionally lethal tequila and the titillation of pulling a fast one together, during the commercial break between Acts 3 and 4, Kim and Jimmy totally do it. And neither of them sneaks out the next morning before the other wakes up. Classy.
What does happen afterward, though, is a quiet agreement between them that this was a one-time thing that can’t and won’t happen again. And we totally believe them.
It is interesting to note that breaking bad together proved to be a Starkweatherian aphrodisiac for the typically straight arrow Kim. Seeing Jimmy in full slippery action and being in on the caper clearly stirs some part of the good lawyer’s anatomy, so it’ll be interesting to see how she reacts to his increasingly devious deeds as the very, very bad Mr. Goodman.
In the episode’s final act, after wandering through the wilderness of indecision and existential crisis, Jimmy finally comes around and takes that big job with the big office and the big custom-ordered desk. (This job is so seriously lux, it even comes with its own Smithers! ) And left alone in his fancy new digs, Jimmy has only one rule to obey.
Harkening back to the Gene Scene at the episode’s start (in both theme and Sartre-steeped metaphor), Jimmy comes face to face with another bossy, handwritten sign: this time warning him not to, under any circumstances, turn off a weirdly random light switch. A twisted Garden of Eden scenario that Jimmy (at a time in his life long before that frightened Nowehere Man Gene is calling the timid shots) immediately fails. And with that, the tone is set for Season Two, where we are likely, we hope, to see more of Jimmy struggling with moral choices and errant light switches of mystery, fighting to be the right guy doing the right thing who gets the good girl, all the while Saul Goodman is roiling and rioting just below the surface.