‘Better Call Saul’
Season 1, Episode 2, ‘Mijo’
As promised in our recap for “Better Call Saul”’s virgin episode, a show that, more than most new shows, is looking for its unique voice finds it about halfway through its second. That’s pretty fast — about as fast as its parent show, “Breaking Bad,” which found its singular mix of intensity, gravity and dark, dark, truly messed-up comedy around the same time into its run as “Saul” does. And what is “Saul”’s mix? It’s a goofier, not as serious but still dangerous version of “Breaking Bad,” essentially.
When its premiere chapter ended, things had taken a sudden turn from silly, maybe even inconsequential into…well, we’re not sure how dangerous. Bob Odenkirk’s shyster lawyer James McGill — who will one day become master shyster lawyer Saul Goodman — has teamed up with a pair of slacker skater con-artists. Upon belatedly realizing they don’t exactly need him, they follow an old lady — who they tried to grift by staging a run-in with her car — to her home. Turns out sad old lady is the grandma of a drug lord of some not terribly high status, who knocks out said skaters — but to do what with?
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When James shows up at the door, he’s forced inside — but again, it’s not clear how serious things will get. We can safely assume James will survive, but what about his former conspirators? Will this show — a show that we knew would be funnier than “Breaking Bad” but not by how much, if perhaps at all — actually leave lead these dumb kids into a grisly, Mike Ehrmantraut-approved death?
It won’t, and the exact point at which it stops reveals what at least appears to be “Better Call Saul”’s voice. James and the skaters are dragged out to the desert — the scariest place in all of the “Breaking Bad”-verse, shy of supermarket parking lots. Here is where James has to channel what will become his inner Saul Goodman: pleading (coolly or not) with his potential killer to let him go, and — because James isn’t nearly as cold-blooded as Saul Goodman will be — save the skaters’ skins too. He stumbles through the act but he works his way to a compromise: their captors won’t kill any of them, but they have unsated bloodlust. And so they will just break both of their legs.
This is a hilariously grim way to release the pressure to which the show-thus-far has built, and “Better Call Saul” finds its voice in a single, simple shot: the image of the skaters having their legs busted by cackling (and as it turns out pretty low-level) drug lords while James flinches in horror and self-hatred. This is the show. This is “Better Call Saul” — one that stops well before things get “Breaking Bad”-level hairy but gets very hairy indeed. It will stop at broken legs, which will one day heal but will nevertheless cause intense pain. It won’t go farther. There won’t be a second floor ceiling that caves in because the chemicals used to dissolve a corpse spilled over the bath tub. Or maybe there will be: this could easily be a show that keeps stepping up a notch until “Breaking Bad” takes over — when James McGill is no more and Saul Goodman has taken over.
Of course, this incident only happens at the episode’s halfway mark. There’s still a good 20-plus minutes left. The rest goes back to what it was before, but with new purpose: Like James himself, the show is trying to find a way to profit off its own self-revelation — to find a way to get him back into that mix of not-quite-horror and dark, pitiless comedy. Of course, it’s still fumbling around, to comic effect. There’s more humiliate-James humor, and I can’t tell if its habit of making big movie references — “Network” in the first episode, “All About Jazz”’s famous “It’s showtime!” montages in the middle of its own Bob Fosse-style montage — then having James explain it is a misstep or touchingly dorky, like James himself. But it’s still early enough in its run that the show not being sure exactly what it is is not only understandable, but also key to its unique charm. What’s clear is it will be really thrilling to watch exactly where it goes next — and then after that, and then after that, and then after that...
Read our recap of 'Better Call Saul' Season1, Episode 1.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge