20 Feb 2015

[Review] - Better Call Saul, Season 1 Episodes 2 And 3, "Mijo" And "Nacho"

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television.
As the second episode of Better Call Saul opened, it was immediately obvious that, aesthetically, this was clearly the sister series of Breaking Bad. The feel of the former was alive and well in the direction and construction of this new endeavor. The pilot certainly shared similarities, but it quite rightly was determined to be it's own thing. To establish a tone, a rapport, a feel of it's own. Here, with these characters introduced and the tone settled upon, the show was able to relax into the vibrant, precise visuals that made Breaking Bad such a joy to watch.

Episode two felt, in a lot of ways, a throw-back to the former series, because as the episode continued, it saw the tonal shift from witty dramedy to broiling horror. The third episode settled into what I assume will be much more Saul's running edge. It shared far more in common with episode one, though it created it's own air, and shifted nervously in it's own seat, as Jimmy wobbled back and forth between the line of accidental criminal and manufactured hero.

Hit the jump for the reviews, which contains spoilers that are Nacho man.

Let's talk about sky. Breaking Bad was a series that never shied away form day light, a relative rarity in a lot of shows, especially network dramas. Events take place at night because on day one of English class, teachers tell students that setting establishes tone, and darkness implies dark dealings. Breaking Bad mercilessly avoided that, making full use of the New Mexico Big Sky, and placed many of it's worst, most dramatic and terrible moments juxtaposed against the backdrop of an endless cloud-spotted wallpaper.

So, as Jimmy barters for his own life, and then manages to lawyer the lives of two schmucks away from the murder happy hands of Tuco, with the tension building and building as Jimmy bluffs, cons and connives his way to a better deal, it was all done under a clear blue ceiling. And it was all the more effective because of it. The creatives behind the scenes had mastered this technique in the previous series, and to see it brought forward, to help inform the events of Jimmy's life as it once did Walt's, is comforting and nerve racking.

A little too often in episode two did it feel like the series was falling back on old familiar tricks that worked well on Breaking Bad, that practically guaranteed success. Episode two was directed by Game of Thrones mainstay and future Wonder Woman director Michelle MacLaren, whose talents I've long lauded and whose success is nearly guaranteed. But rather than developing new methods based on old, the whole construction of the episode felt like they were falling back too heavily on tried and true ways to evoke exactly what they wanted out of the audience, rather than having us come to it on our own. The script, from showrunner Peter Gould, felt very much like a left over Breaking Bad script rather than a uniquely Saul creation.

Episode three however, felt very much like it's own thing. Instead of a recipe off the back of the box, it felt like a piece of creative culinary invention, formulas tweaked to serve a new set of taste buds. With Odenkirk in the lead, and an entirely new and across the board lighter tone, this episode felt more at home within the confines of this series. It managed to showcase absurdity without being absurd. It imparted desperation without being dour, it threatened without seeming threatening. As I expected in the pilot, the series is hiding trauma and tragedy behind just the right amount of humour, which means we're entertained while also becoming compelled with Jimmy and his horrible life.

I've also found the aspect of the series that I've decided to champion, and that is the pacing. This show is gloriously paced. In three episodes, we've managed to cover a fair amount of ground without it seeming that we have. Fully half of episode two was either Jimmy and Tuco having a conversation in a living room, or Jimmy and Tuco having a conversation in a desert. Despite only having ten episodes, the writers aren't rushing (it likely is a comfort to them knowing that they've already got a second season pick up, meaning they can afford to take their time) to get through story points.

Michael McKean has made two appearances in three episodes, only three scenes, as Chuck, and they haven't even begun to scratch that backstory. And yet it is the plot point I'm most interested in seeing develop, the one I'm most anxious to see explained. The use thus far of Mike is a perfect example. He's been in every episode, but it was only in three that he finally got involved, and only then it was a brief introduction between him and Jimmy. Rather than sand blast relationships into being, they are letting the river carve the bank.

A side effect of taking their time like this, is that the focus lies entirely on characters rather than the plot, because with a pace this deliciously slow, plot would seem overly decompressed. The third episode was ostensibly about the kidnapping of the Kettleman's, and while that plot was the impetus to the episode, it wasn't the driving force. It was Jimmy, and the various relationships he has with the other characters, that pushed things forward. We followed Jimmy, as he moved from A to B, rather than watching Jimmy as he got moved form A to B. There is a world of difference between those two scenarios, and the majority of that difference is quality. This show seems effortless, which is certainly a sign of how hard it actually is to make television this good.

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