Article by: Frank Memmesheimer
(SOON) ON TV: Better Call Saul Season 2
Here’s my number, so call me maybe!?
Season 2 starts right in the mess that Season 1 left us with.
Embark on a little retrospective with me!?
I have a confession to make. I haven’t seen Breaking Bad. None of it. 25 minutes’ worth of clips on youtube, maybe, but that’s it. I know the show’s premise, I know Walter White, chemistry teacher turned drug lord, I know his foul-mouthed associate, and I know that “Saul” is the guy the bad guys call when they’re in desperate need for a lawyer. That’s all I know. Mr. Uninitiated here.
“Why?” you ask. “How could you have missed that?”
Well, I didn’t get around to it at first. What I saw later on didn’t grab me as much as everyone said it would. Finally, I was too far behind. Five seasons is a lot to catch up on: 62 episodes that amount to 2790 minutes (according to tiii.me, a neat and practical website that calculates how much time you’ve spent watching TV shows).
So, there I was with close to zero knowledge about what I would get into when Better Call Saul came along.
“Why,” you ask, “would you watch it? Why write about it?” Implicitly you are asking yourself “Why should I read anything this guy writes about my beloved characters? They’re strangers to him!” You’re right to ask. How can I write about Better Call Saul when all I know is close to nothing of the much larger story that has already been told elsewhere, a small portion of a fictional universe that has much more to offer than I can recall? What could I possibly offer you, dear reader? What do I bring to the table?
Fresh eyes. That’s the one thing I have to offer in my still youthful delusion. Fresh eyes. Every face is new to me. Every character is pristine. No character has a past with me, for better or worse. I have to work out for every single character whether they’re a good guy or bad. How do I do that? I actually look at the clues that the creators offer me. At how they present the characters. What they say. What they do. What the imagery tells me beyond the obvious of what is said and done. I watch Better Call Saul as unbiased as anyone can be in this day and age of inescapable media coverage of pop-cultural TV show-phenomena. True, I might miss all the obvious clues and connections to Breaking Bad. Then again, I might just as well be the one to pick up all the tell-tale signs that everybody else overlooks.
When I call Howard Hamlin a douche, it is because he has earned it. Tuco Salamanca? Pure evil. Nacho Varga? Defiant. Might easily outsmart Tuco. I get the feeling that both of them will have clashed in Breaking Bad. Every character has to build his/her own reputation with me, despite everything they might have accomplished in that regard in the original series. Most prominent example so far: Mike. To most of you he is a force to be reckoned with. To me, he is just the guy in the ticket booth at the parking lot of an Albuquerque court building.
Mike. Ticket booth. Always grumpy. Painfully following the rules.
“You either pay the $3 or you get an additional sticker.” An immovable object. A stickler.
But he’s was a cop, right? So he is one of the good guys.
Oh, wait, a dirty cop? A bad guy then.
But didn’t he avenge his son’s murder, even though he was the one to expose the corruption?
I guess that makes him okay in my book.
Then again, he works those shady jobs as a gun for hire. Bad guy, definitely.
Oh, he only does it for the good reason of supporting his daughter-in-law financially?
Man, he screwed with my moral compass pretty well.
Let’s talk film. If we can trust the pioneer cinematographers of the 20th century, just about everything in the frame matters. Camera shots, angles, composition, movement, focus, lighting, distance, direction, size. Everything matters. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost that sense. We just point our cameras and shoot. Yet, there could be so much more to the images we capture. I count myself among the guilty here as well. It was with great joy that I discovered that Better Call Saul’s cinematography actually speaks fluently.
Two examples. Throughout the season, Jimmy struggles for recognition from his brother and acceptance of his peers. All while trying to get his business off the ground, trying to start a legitimate life, trying to once and for all leave behind the shady antiques of his past. In ep.7 Jimmy offers Kim to partner up and start a law firm of their own. He dares to live his dream. Kim declines. The only reasonable choice for her. For him, all hope is crushed. Jimmy’s plan to become the respected lawyer he always aspired to be has failed. “James M. McGill, attorney at law” was not meant to be. By himself, he visits the prospective property a last time to bury his future. Here, despite the absence of any spoken word, the framing speaks volumes (click to enlarge the images).
Whatever legitimate future he has dreamed up, it’s too big for him. He won’t be able to fill it out. He seems utterly lost in the big law office. He’s small time. How painful a realization to come to.
Unexpectedly, after grave disappointment, a viable partnership and prospective future for Jimmy are on the table in the season’s final ep.10. On his way to seal the deal in the court house, Jimmy stops cold in his tracks. We see him stand in the parking lot and ponder.
Again, the framing is key. It’s not that the camera operator was a little off target here. Quite the contrary. He captured exactly what he wanted to. Jimmy, walking towards his eagerly awaited future, is facing a wall. The frame of the image is right there in front of his face. There’s quite literally no way for him to walk further (from this point of view, anyway).
In western culture there’s an unspoken agreement/subconscious understanding when it comes to the depiction of past and future in images by using the directions of left and right. Most easily explained by the notion that we read from left to right. We move (our eyes) from left to right. Left symbolizes the past, right symbolizes the future. Let’s take another look at Jimmy. There’s no “future” in his future, not enough space for him to fit in. He is facing a wall to the right. The free space to his left, the space right behind him, his past, is wide open. Jimmy’s future is not in a legitimate corporate legal enterprise. His future is in his past. In his talents of old, most recently refreshed by visiting his old friend and partner in fraud Marco. Cobbler, stick to your trade. Con man, so should you. The scene above leaves no doubt: there’s no escape for Jimmy, except going back to who he was.
“Slippin’ Jimmy is a lawyer?” Hell, yeah.
Season one orchestrates the systematic destruction of Jimmy’s dreams and hopes, and leaves him to suffer at the hideous hands of his disregarding brother. The narrative delivers him blow by blow. It celebrates Jimmy’s bad luck, disappointments, and failure. It never pities him. I mean, he is an okay guy. I like him for trying. I don’t want to see him fail. (Okay, maybe just a bit.) What is up with the satisfaction that seeing our (fictional) fellow man suffer tragically gives us? Can’t a guy get a break?
As I enjoy Jimmy’s struggle and demise, I don’t do so with malice intent. I celebrate every misfortune, for it brings Jimmy closer to the point of no return, to the point where he finally decides to become the guy Breaking Bad fans know him to be. I long for the catalyst moment. The “Enough!” Just as audiences witnessed Walter White’s transformation into Heisenberg, Better Call Saul offers a front-row seat for the transition of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, criminal lawyer.
I’ll let Jimmy have the last word.
Jimmy: “Did I dream or did I have a million six-hundred thousand on my desk? […] Why didn’t we keep the money? What stopped us?”
Mike: “I remember you saying something about ‘doing the right thing.’”
Jimmy: “I don’t even know what that means. I know what stopped me. You know what? It’s never stopping me again.”
> Season 2 premieres Monday, Feb. 15 at 10/9c on AMC. Each new episode will be available on Netflix globally (except the US) after it airs in the US. Season 1 is currently available on Netflix (even in the US). Still enough time for you to re-binge all of Better Call Saul. And all of Breaking Bad if you’re really, really committed.