Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Better Call Saul Season 4, Episode 2, “Breathe”

After a saggy episode to kick off the season, “Breathe” finds Better Call Saul returning to form with a tight episode that offers some interesting points of comparison with Breaking Bad, along with another standout Kim scene thrown in for good measure.

One of Breaking Bad’s modus operandi was to routinely offer Walt reasonable, common sense means of resolving the circumstances that motivated his meth cooking, only to have him reject the reasonable path that would extricate him from the drug world. From a writer’s standpoint, it was imperative that Walt keep cooking meth because it ensured the show adhered to its premise of turning a family man into a drug lord. However, the writers had to make Walt’s decision-making process plausible, and in order to motivate his behavior, they gave him a self-sabotaging character trait: a crippling sense of pride. Again and again, Walt rejects the help of others, encourages antagonists, and gets more deeply enmeshed in the drug world because to do otherwise would have imposed upon his pride.

In “Breathe,” Jimmy engages in a similar pattern of behavior when he interviews for a sales position at Neff Copiers. Jimmy uses his old con man skills to sweet talk the owner into hiring him on the spot, but then berates the owner for being so easily swayed, and spitefully rejects the job offer. Jimmy could have taken this job, but just like with Walt in Breaking Bad, it would have led down a more mundane narrative path. So instead, the writers motivate his turning down the sales job by appealing to Jimmy’s pride in a good con. In performing his pitch, Jimmy treats the owner as a mark, and when it works, he instantly resents the owner for falling for it, literally calling him a sucker. Jimmy can’t bring himself to work under someone so easily hoodwinked by his superior powers of persuasion.

Of course, Jimmy is not Walt; pride is one of Walt’s defining characteristics, but Jimmy is more self-aware and self-deprecating. Walt obsesses over having others view him the way he views himself (to his own detriment), but more often than not, Jimmy simply wants others to view him in whatever way most effectively advances his goals. Walt is egotistical, whereas Jimmy is simply manipulative, thus there are other contingent factors at play here aside from pride.

One is that Neff Copiers is a small family business, perhaps reminding Jimmy of his father, a small-business owner whom Jimmy resented for being too soft a touch. By manipulating Neff into hiring him, only to cruelly turn him down, Jimmy is exorcizing some of his resentment for his father. Another factor is his lingering grief over Chuck. Jimmy suppresses his grief in his personal life, as we can see in all of his scenes with Kim, but this causes it to seep out in his professional life, deflecting the guilt he feels by taking it out on others. Finally, despite his best intentions to run an honest law practice, he still gets a thrill out of conning people, and the trauma of being partly responsible for his brothers’ suicide leads him to return to old, gratifying patterns of behavior. We can see this most clearly near the end of the episode, at point I'll return to when discussing Kim.

Two other points of comparison with Breaking Bad occur in a pair of scenes from the cartel half of Better Call Saul. The first involves Lydia: we see the first signs of the skittishness that will become one of her defining traits in Breaking Bad when she expresses concern over Mike’s subterfuge at the Las Cruces Madrigal office in "Smoke." As in Breaking Bad, Lydia’s impulse is to hide her illegal activity by trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, thus she doesn’t want Mike to continue to pose as a security consultant. Mike disagrees, thinking it would be more suspicious not to go through the motions of performing his front job, which motivates Lydia to try to circumvent Mike’s stubbornness. When they came to a similar impasse on Breaking Bad, Lydia put a hit out on Mike and tried to turn his crew against him. Here, she simply complains – ineffectively – to Gus.

I like that Better Call Saul is building up animosity between Mike and Lydia, because it nuances his exasperation with her when we first meet her in season five of Breaking Bad. If Better Call Saul continues to develop their animosity, it will turn Mike’s intention to murder in Lydia at start of season five of Breaking Bad into a “straw that broke the camel’s back” moment, in addition to a consequence of his own pragmatic worldview and strict criminal code of conduct.

The final point of comparison with Breaking Bad involves Gus. Last week I pondered whether Gus would see Nacho as a threat or an ally in the wake discovering Nacho’s betrayal of Hector, but instead he sees Nacho as a tool, seizing his loyalty through power and intimidation. Gus kills Arturo, Hector’s other lieutenant, and blackmails Nacho into working for him. Gus’s tactic here is interesting because it contrasts sharply with his behavior in Breaking Bad. In season three of Breaking Bad, Gus wants Walt to work for him, but Walt resists, and at one point Mike asks Gus why he doesn’t just force Walt through threats and intimidation. Gus replies that he doesn’t think fear is an effective motivator – quite the contrast with his treatment of Nacho here. Perhaps his experience with Nacho on Better Call Saul will lead him to the different ethos we see on Breaking Bad.

Finally, this episode also features another great Kim scene, where she unloads on Howard for revealing to Jimmy his suspicion about Chuck’s suicide, expertly reading his behavior in “Smoke” as a (perhaps non-conscious) attempt to alleviate his own guilt by seeking Jimmy’s forgiveness, never considering that it would make Chuck’s death even more painful for Jimmy. Rather than just grieve Chuck, now Jimmy has to live with the knowledge that after the brothers’ latest falling out, Chuck preferred to die rather than turn to Jimmy for help. She also unleashes righteous indignation over how Chuck was a really lousy brother to Jimmy.

Kim is often a pretty buttoned up character, thus it’s extremely powerful when she lets her anger fly. Everyone should be so lucky as to have such a fierce and loving advocate in their corner. Of course, her staunch protection of Jimmy will make it all the more tragic if/when Jimmy drives her away in the course of becoming Saul. We can see cracks in their foundation in this episode. Jimmy lies through omission when he describes to Kim his interview with Neff Copiers, and later he researches the value of a Hummel figurine in the Neff office and calls Mike, suggesting that during his law suspension he’d rather make money through illicit means than through a legitimate job. I can easily see him spiraling further toward his Slippin’ Jimmy days, Kim finding out, and realizing that Chuck was perhaps more right than wrong about Jimmy, even if Chuck himself contributed to Jimmy’s corruptible nature through his own refusal to trust his brother. As it often does, Better Call Saul takes advantage of its prequel status by having us constantly weigh what happens in a given episode against where we know Jimmy/Saul is headed.

Other thoughts:

- The reintroduction of the Salamanca Cousins makes sense given Gus’s seizure of Nacho’s loyalty at the end of the episode. With Hector comatose and Arturo now dead, there needs to be some other Salamanca enforcer in town to keep Nacho’s arc suspenseful.

- Nacho’s dad lays out the money Hector gave him into three piles, just like Hector laid it out for him when he forced Nacho’s dad to take it. They haven't given him much to do, but Nacho's dad is effective at showing his contempt for Nacho's involvement in the drug business.

- Jimmy’s deep knowledge of photocopiers is a bit surprising, but it snapped into focus once the copy store manager notes that one of the older models was so good that crooks used it to make counterfeit five dollar bills. Jimmy’s reaction indicates that he was likely one of those crooks.

- Dr. Bruckner, the doctor Gus brings in from John Hopkins to treat Hector, knows her way around a stroke, but she seems a bit worse at reading a room, or at least worse than the poor doctor she replaces as lead on Hector’s case. The local doctor is rightly scared out of his wits by the imposing presence of the Cousins, but Dr. Bruckner doesn't seem to register that they are drug dealers, or she simply doesn't care. Either way, it's cause for concern on her behalf, should the Cousins find the limits of Hector’s eventual recovery insufficient.

- The hospital scenes also provided a funny spectacle of the normally taciturn Arturo and Nacho being forced to talk to the comatose Hector. Rather than soothing words, their first impulse is to update him on business, since that’s likely all they ever talked about. However, it turns serious when the Cousins prod Nacho into offering words of encouragement, as he realizes he might need to do more to ensure Hector doesn’t recover, lest his efforts to protect his father be for naught. Or perhaps he realizes the danger of anyone ever finding out about what he did, which is of course what happens at the end of the episode. Poor Nacho.

- Jimmy notices some of his hair falling out – another incremental step toward the thinner-haired Saul.

- Note that Gus is the one to put a bag over Arturo's head and restrain him, not Tyrus or Victor. He gets his hands dirty, rather than forcing his subordinates to do it by themselves, much like he was willing to ingest poison to kill Don Eladio on Breaking Bad. No wonder he inspires such loyalty. Perhaps this is one way in which he will draw Mike closer.


  1. The way I read the interview scene, i had the feeling that Jimmy realized that he was essentially going through a “mid-life crisis” in regards to his con methods (which makes the shot of him looking at his hair thinning so much more potent). Good job on drawing the connection between Neff and Jimmy’s father, I hadn’t thought of that.

    Kim is proving more and more to be Better Call Saul’s tragic figure (in a show where basically the entire cast can be considered tragic). Seehorn’s performance, as always, was excellent in showcasing her loyalty to Jimmy, as was as underlining that the inevitable break in their relationship will be merciless and brutal.

    The scenes with Mike were probably the least interesting, as I still don’t know where his storyline is heading, except for the foundation of his relationship with Gus. Given how the showrunners mentioned that this season is where we see Gus step up to be the villain he is in Breaking Bad, I’m definitely excited for his storyline to intersect with Nacho’s.

    So where do you think this season is headed? Do you think that jimmy and Kim’s relationship will fracture this season or a future one?

  2. Yeah, Mike is not yet Gus's #1 trusted employee/fixer, as he is on Breaking Bad, so that's probably something this season is building toward. Nacho is a wildcard in all of this, as it's unclear what his future holds.

    I'm not sure if they're going to totally dismantle Jimmy and Kim - it's easy to assume that's what will happen, but it could be they have other plans for her. If they do drift apart, given the incremental nature of both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, it might take this season and the next to full achieve. Although who knows? Better Call Saul is surprising, so it can be difficult to predict the future, even with knowledge of what happens in Breaking Bad.