Saturday, April 16, 2016

Better Call Saul Season 2, Episode 9, "Nailed"

It’s been an interesting experience to watch the creative team behind Breaking Bad apply the same storytelling acumen and suspenseful trappings to a story with significantly different premises, particularly Breaking Bad’s slow, deliberate pace and attention to detail. In both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, these qualities often manifest in an emphasis on processes, particularly characters concocting and executing plans, and then dealing incrementally with their ramifications (or perhaps more accurately, their fallout). Rather than Breaking Bad’s drug world, in Better Call Saul it’s (mostly) the legal world; in season one, rather than showing the humble beginnings of a meth empire and drug kingpin, instead it’s the origins of a crooked lawyer who cuts corners and is “colorful,” as Jimmy McGill has described himself.*

* Of course, Mike’s corner of this show is much more steeped in that familiar Breaking Bad milieu, so it’s not completely devoid of the premises of the previous series.

I was particularly struck by the similarities in this week’s episode because of the wonderfully rich scene at the center of all of the latest drama: Chuck retroactively figures out that Jimmy sabotaged Chuck’s work for Mesa Verde, and lays bare his extremely accurate hypotheses to Kim while Jimmy can do nothing but weakly deny his brother’s accusations. It’s a powerful scene for many reasons. One is that it draws on Chuck’s well-established familiarity with Jimmy’s dispositions; Chuck knows Jimmy really well, and the episode draws on that knowledge and puts it to good use. On a lesser show (like House of Cards), Chuck would not have realized that Jimmy is behind Chuck’s “clerical error”; Chuck merely would have become as stupid as he needed to be so that Jimmy could get away with his plan (this is House of Cards’ primary modus operandi for Frank’s machinations, and is one of the many reasons I gave up on it). Not so here; the writers make Chuck as smart as possible, and deal with the consequences of staying true to the character.

The same is true of Kim in this scene. These are all smart characters. The looks on Kim’s face seem to indicate that she knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that Chuck is right. This is exactly the sort of thing Jimmy would do, and Jimmy’s weak protests during Chuck’s speech only lend credence to the accusations. Were Jimmy innocent, he’d surely have a better defense (they are lawyers, after all).* Kim’s disappointment in Jimmy is palpable, especially in the stern look of disapproval she gives him when Chuck hypothesizes that Jimmy did it not to stick it to Chuck or HHM, but for her. However, as much as this scene honors Chuck's intelligence, it honors Kim's even more, and manages a subtle trick of misdirection while doing it.

* The most convincing part of Chuck’s story about Jimmy’s sabotage is when he remembers thinking 1216 is only a year after the Magna Carta was signed. It is unlikely that such a detail would have come to mind if Chuck were to have repeatedly transposed numbers accidentally. 

In a wonderful turn, despite the alternating looks of pity and scorn she levels at Chuck and Jimmy, Kim appears to choose her faith in Jimmy over Chuck’s assured presentation of his case. Chuck’s evidence against Jimmy is based entirely on Chuck’s knowledge of Jimmy’s character, and on Jimmy having both motive and opportunity. Once Kim realizes this, she turns that same evidence back on Chuck, using her knowledge of his electromagnetic hypersensitivity as an explanation for the “clerical error,” and her extensive knowledge of their sibling rivalry as an explanation for Chuck’s motive in blaming Jimmy. She gives an impassioned speech about how Chuck is really to blame for Jimmy being the way he is, and every single word of it is the complete and utter truth: “You’re the one who made him this way. He idolizes you. He accepts you. He takes care of you, and all he ever wanted was your love and support, but all you’ve ever done is judge him. You never believed in him. You never wanted him to succeed. And you know what? I feel for sorry for him. And I feel sorry for you.”

It’s a moving defense of the man she loves, but it is made pitiable because we know Jimmy doesn’t deserve it. At least, not in this case. Both Chuck and Kim are right about Jimmy here: Kim is right in that Chuck is partly to blame for Jimmy’s behavior, at least on the macro level, but Chuck is also right that Jimmy did indeed commit this act of sabotage. One of the reasons this scene is so great is that they both present valid arguments about Jimmy's behavior. More important, however, is that Kim’s delivery of her speech is so powerful that she made me believe that she really did think Jimmy was innocent of this particular accusation. It even convinces Jimmy, who is so moved that he reaches affectionately for Kim’s hand after they leave. It’s only when Kim punches Jimmy in anger and frustration that it becomes totally clear that she knows Chuck is right, and that Jimmy sabotaged him. Retrospectively, we can see more clearly that Kim’s speech was a show, one she put on for Chuck so that she can claim plausible deniability and save Jimmy from prison time. She expertly walks a razor's edge, her reactions to Chuck's accusations complicit with both the denial she feigns for Chuck, and the realization that Chuck is right. It's a marvelous performance from Rhea Seehorn.

The complexity of this scene is very rich; we can make extremely nuanced and sophisticated inferences about the thoughts and emotions of each character at every turn. This complexity, and this situation in general, are also reasons for why this episode reminded me so much of Breaking Bad. Not only is Jimmy like Walt in committing serious criminal acts (fraud, forgery, falsifying evidence, and even breaking and entering, as Kim says), but Jimmy is also quickly found out. Jimmy concocts a plan, executes it, and then sees it unravel in much the same way Walt often did, and just as in Breaking Bad, it’s only quick thinking that gets Jimmy out of this jam. Except here, it’s not his own quick thinking, but Kim’s. Likewise, the episode also has shades of Breaking Bad insofar as Jimmy realizes that he neglected some crucial component after the fact (the copy shop clerk is a witness), and must scurry to clean it up before he is found out.

Of course, just as in their confrontation with Chuck, it’s Kim’s quick thinking that makes Jimmy realize he’s not out of the woods yet. Kim is quickly proving to be much smarter than Jimmy, and not only is it a great service to her character, but her attitude towards Jimmy’s rule-bending also smartly avoids traps Breaking Bad inadvertently fell into with Skyler. Rather than hold what she knows of Jimmy’s illegal activities against him (as Skyler did with Walt), Kim accepts them, and even councils Jimmy, so long as she can maintain plausible deniability. She knows exactly what she’s getting into when she climbs into bed with Jimmy (both literally and figuratively), and accepts it, so long as it doesn’t impinge on her practice. Better Call Saul is thereby avoiding the risk of turning off some viewers by having her moral high ground interfere with all the fun times Jimmy and viewers have with his practicing/bending the law.

Other brief thoughts:

Mike = Batman
- This episode also depicts a pivotal moment in Mike’s transformation into an organized crime fixer: in robbing Hector Salamanca, he gets revenge for being pressured into recanting his testimony against Tuco, and is quite pleased with himself, until Nacho informs him that his actions had unintended consequences: the death of a good Samaritan. Just like with Jimmy’s transformation into Saul, Better Call Saul is taking its sweet time depicting Mike’s gradual adjustment to criminal enterprise. Everything about his story was wonderful this week as well (it’s always nice to see Mike operating more or less like Batman), and speaks to the pleasures of this show. Mike and Jimmy both bring a different level of energy to a given week’s story, whether they’re working together or apart, and they complement each other nicely, like a two-flavored version of Neapolitan ice cream. The alternating beats of Jimmy and Mike’s stories are one of Better Call Saul’s more unique characteristics, at least in comparison with Breaking Bad, where Jesse was always much more closely tied to whatever was happening in Walt's life than Mike is with Jimmy's.

- I am curious about how this series will end. Is there any way to build to a satisfying conclusion for Mike when we already know what's in store for him? Will we flash forward from when Saul meets Walt to Cinnabon Gene and continue from there? Will Kaylee grow into a wry, cynical and practical killer like Mike (a Robin to his Batman) and meet up with Cinnabon Gene somewhere down the line? Only time will tell.

- I love that when Chuck cracks, “You and Mozart,” in response to Jimmy’s incredulity over Chuck’s citing Jimmy’s shenanigans in high school, Chuck then adds the explanation, “You both started young.”

- Despite the similarities in story construction, Jimmy is no Walt. It's all Jimmy can do not to leap into the copy shop to come to Chuck's aid when he collapses. Walt rarely showed this level of concern for the consequences his ploys had for others. On the other hand, Walt had no brother, and did make sacrifices for his family. Perhaps he would have reacted similarly.

- Chuck is like a small-time Bond villain, waiting in his dark layer for Jimmy and Kim to arrive, wrapped in his tinfoil cape. Bond villains often have physical deformities, after all.

- In a way, Jimmy's sabotage of Chuck is no less egregious than Chuck's emotional sabotage of Jimmy, as detailed in season one. Jimmy's just happens to be illegal. It's one more incremental step in what I assume will be a slow and painful estrangement between these two as we get closer and closer to Breaking Bad times.

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