If Matthew Weiner’s signature setting is California as seen through the eyes of a New Yorker (or, as was originally the case, a New Jersey mob boss) in desperate need of some fresh perspective, then Vince Gilligan’s is the desert — particularly as the backdrop for a showdown. Miles from the strip malls and housing developments of Albuquerque, it’s the kind of lawless space where you can park your meth-lab camper or hold an whole row of enemies at gunpoint, with no one in the straight world getting even an inkling of what you’re up to. In “Ozymandias,” this setup gave us what most fans cite as the single best episode of Breaking Bad. So it seems wise that Better Call Saul got us back there by Episode 2, in a scene that both revisited one of Breaking Bad‘s most memorable villains and revealed the central contradiction that makes Jimmy McGill such a rich character.
About half of “Mijo” — written by co-creator Peter Gould and directed by Michelle MacLaren, who was a co-producer and frequent director on Breaking Bad — is devoted to the desert confrontation where Jimmy and his redheaded skater accomplices narrowly avoid murder at the hands of insane, grandma-loving drug lord Tuco Salamanca. (Those who haven’t seen BB desperately need to read up on this guy.) And aside from expertly escalating the show’s stakes, this extended sequence is crucial to developing Jimmy’s character.
From the moment Tuco pulls him into his grandmother’s house, Jimmy is in spin mode. In sharp contrast to his boneheaded “clients,” who need to take a four-pronged cane to the face in order to understand who they’re dealing with, he sees a gun and knows he has to beg for his life. Even before he sees the “salsa stain” on the carpet, Jimmy is careful to refer to what happened between the skaters and Tuco’s beloved abuelita as an “accident” and admits that they showed “extremely poor judgment.” When Tuco tells Jimmy, “You got a mouth on you,” he doesn’t know how right he is.
In the crucible of the desert, surrounded by henchmen and about to get his finger clipped off, Jimmy initially shows good judgment, but then second-guesses himself. He tells Tuco the truth about who he is, and only resorts to a lie when he thinks it’s not working. But Tuco’s right-hand man, Nacho Varga (Michael Mando, who it looks like we’ll see plenty of this season), realizes that there’s no way Jimmy could be FBI, because he knows literally nothing about the people who might be about to kill him. Clearly the brains of the operation, Nacho talks narcissistic Tuco out of murdering a lawyer who is “showing respect” — he says it’s “bad business.”
Jimmy’s respectful tone is one bit of evidence that his manipulation skills could be an asset, but he’s even more masterful in convincing Tuco to spare the twins’ lives. He knows a matriarchal guy when he sees one coo soothingly to his grandma. “Think about their mother,” he tells Tuco, painting a picture of the poor woman “scrubbing the floors of rich people” — all for these two dolts, “the apples of her eye.” What follows is an entirely bonkers formal negotiation regarding which of the boys’ limbs Tuco will injure, and to what extent. It ends on the wince-inducing sounds of two legs (one per skater) breaking.
In the immediate aftermath, as Jimmy wheels them into the hospital, one of the twins remarks, “You are the worst lawyer ever.” To which Jimmy responds, “Hey, I just talked you down from a death sentence to a six months’ probation. I’m the best lawyer ever.” What’s funny is that they’re both right: It’s inherently ridiculous to watch an attorney allow grievous bodily harm to come to his clients. And yet, if he hadn’t, they would be dead. It’s the kind of negotiation that gets results but won’t win you any glory, or even gratitude. This, of course, is the Jimmy McGill who will become Saul Goodman — ruthlessly pragmatic, creative, and more than willing to operate outside the law if it means getting the results he and his clients need.
It’s also worth noting that Jimmy doesn’t have to save the brothers. In fact, he’s about to walk away after he’s cut free, but can’t bear to leave them to the mercy of Tuco. At least at this point in his story, Jimmy still has a good heart; sure, he’s a scammer, but he can’t stop himself from risking his own life to save the necks of two guys who tried to scam him and sold him out to Tuco. Later, we learn that he pays their hospital bill (although what he tells Chuck about it doesn’t ring quite true — the original scheme was very Slippin’ Jimmy).
“Mijo” meanders about a bit from there, following Jimmy to a date, where every crunch of breadstick reminds him of the broken legs. He throws up in the bathroom and ends up getting so drunk that he stumbles into Chuck’s house without “grounding himself” — leaving his cellphone outside. Chuck freaks out, and is visibly shaking as he uses tongs to fling the device onto the front lawn. The next morning when Jimmy wakes up, he’s wearing a metallic “space blanket,” in what is apparently an attempt to counteract his contact with the phone. Though we’re kept in the dark about Chuck’s affliction, we get some hints at the brothers’ caring yet seemingly guilt-ridden, mistrustful relationship.
After such a tense first 25 minutes, it’s wise of Better Call Saul to spend much of its second half establishing Jimmy’s daily routine: he sucks down coffee, begs tattooed thugs to apologize for their crimes, bargains (largely unsuccessfully) with the prosecutor, and torments Mike. “It’s showtime!” he tells himself over and over again in the mirror — and this isn’t just, as he explains, a movie quote. It’s how Jimmy approaches his life and career, with the effort and enthusiasm of a best-case-scenario Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain. That’s the final essential element of the Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman character: his contagious, sometimes ill-advised exuberance.
Of course, something is going to have to happen to transform this spirited public defender into a spirited accessory to crime. We get a hint of this when Nacho, who once again proves his intelligence by hatching a plan to lift the Kettlemans’ stolen money, comes to visit Jimmy in his nail salon office/apartment. It’s clear that Jimmy wants to stay legit — but it’s equally clear that he was already on the wrong side of the law before he showed up on Tuco’s doorstep. Nacho leaves our hero with his phone number scrawled on a matchbook. “For when you figure out you’re already in the game,” he says. Something tells me that realization won’t take too long.