“If you’re going to be a criminal, do your homework.” That’s Mike in Episode 9 of Better Call Saul, proving once again that a spin-off series following just him would be almost certainly amazing.
The penultimate episode of this show’s first season finds it once again hitting its tone spot-on, as Mike goes from quality time with his daughter (and a cute dog) to more natural surroudings: a car park, where he finds himself in competition with three other hard men for a job. “What you carrying?” asks one clueless thug, who’s packing several pieces. “Pimento,” replies Mike, indicating a brown bag containing a sandwich. “It’s a type of cheese”.
Jonathan Banks deadpans his lines like a deadpanning machine that’s just been arrested for murdering pans. Between each, he gives an exasperated sigh that manages to swing between amusing and threatening, depending on the glare in his eyes. And yet his packed lunch – and the dog earlier – makes it clear that this isn’t a man who relies on violence to make a point. It’s not only that he doesn’t need to, but also that he doesn’t want to. It separates him from the rest of the hoodlums. Is he more considerate? Perhaps. But most of all, he’s smarter.
When a bespectacled bloke in a hatchback turns up, then, asking politely for protection, it’s clear who’s in control. Mike sighs as they drive off.
The mission? Sell some stolen pills to some dealers. It’s a neat foreshadowing of the drug-dealing that will eventually take over Mike’s future and, inevitably, another exploration of the moral line that seems to run through the middle of Albuquerque. “I’m not a bad guy,” insists our bumbling client. “I didn’t say you were a bad guy, I said you were a criminal,” replies Mike. That distinction is central to the Breaking Bad universe, a reminder that good guys can break the law too – often because they don’t have another choice.
Are they better than the dodgy cops that have defined Mike’s past? That’s irrelevant – a fact that only reinforces the enigmatic appeal, and the unbreakable strength, of Banks’ character.
Strength of character – or lack thereof – finally becomes Jimmy McGill’s undoing. After slaving away doing the right thing, he finds himself swamped with paperwork from his slippery defendants, who try to stop him seeing his OAP clients. The solution proposed by Chuck? Take it to Hamlin’s firm, who have the resources to deal with the case.
Bob Odenkirk processes the idea with visible rancor, chewing up the notion of asking his enemy for help before humbly spitting it out. A moment where the two brothers enter the building is striking, as Michael McKean’s veteran gets a standing ovation… and McGill Jr. is left standing on his own. Kim, of course, hangs back to help him with boxes of paperwork; a gesture of friendship that speaks more than her outbursts at Hamlin later in the episode.
What’s impressive, though, is the way the series handles Chuck. Ever since Episode 1, it has been difficult to care about the guy and his bizarre condition. A successful lawyer who looks down on his brother, he’s hardly a sympathetic character. But over time, the show has shifted to show us Chuck from Jimmy’s point of view: he may not be engaging or intereting, but his actions (and opinions) affect Jimmy.
When we saw him congratulate Odenkirk’s eager mailroom boy last week, after he got a degree from an online university, the lack of encouragement was painfully harsh. Here, as Jimmy begins to make headway in the world of big-shot lawyering, the gap between each brother’s respect for the other, is jimmied (ahem) wide open. It’s a blow that rings loud and harsh, thanks to Odenkirk’s bruised performance and convincing enthusiasm for earning his keep legally – the two actors have one superb exchange towards the end that sees each stealing the scene from the other.
“You can be on one side of the law or the other,” comments Mike, halfway through, “but if you make a deal with someone, you keep your word.”
With only a finale to go, Better Call Saul reveals its calculating, bleak conclusion: if you work with the right people, there can be more honour among thieves than lawyers. It’s a cruel lesson, but Better Call Saul teaches it well. Writer/director Thomas Schnauz certainly did his homework.
New episodes of Better Call Saul arrive on Netflix UK every Tuesday at 7am.
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Photo: Ursula Coyote