Friday, September 7, 2018

Better Call Saul Season 4, Episode 5, “Quite a Ride”

In my write-up of the previous episode, I expressed impatience with the repetitious nature of Jimmy’s plot this season, and the slow pace of his transformation into Saul. “Quite a Ride” corrects for this slow pace and then some, thrusting Jimmy ever closer toward becoming Saul, and offering my favorite episode of the season thus far. It helps, of course, that we actually – shockingly – see Saul for the first time on Better Call Saul (outside of Gene watching his old TV commercials). The episode opens with a flash forward to a scene set near the end of Breaking Bad, with Francesca shredding documents and Saul scrambling to pack his things and arrange a meeting with Robert Forster’s fixer character.

Why have the writers chosen mid-season four, of all places, for us to catch our first sustained glimpse of the eponymous character? And why this particular moment from Breaking Bad? For one, it’s fitting that we catch a glimpse of Saul in an episode where Jimmy makes more progress toward becoming him. For instance, in trying to sell untraceable cell phones to the shadier characters populating Albuquerque’s night life, Jimmy must raid his lawyer/elder care wardrobe for a costume to look the part, lest his clientele think him a narc, much like how Saul’s colorful wardrobe will also be costume for his future clientele (and like how it was a costume intended to get him fired from Davis & Main). Likewise, in selling phones to the fringes of Albuquerque’s underworld, Jimmy is finally beginning to associate with same sort of clientele that he will eventually serve as Saul. Essentially, Jimmy’s late night outing at the Dog House is like a trial run for his Saul persona; he’s experimenting with drumming up business (be it phones or legal services) for a client base with which he’s already familiar from his Slippin’ Jimmy days.

Accordingly, it seems Better Call Saul is taking some pretty big steps toward Jimmy becoming Saul. More than this, though, the flash forward to Saul also serves as a point of comparison throughout the episode, either paralleling or contrasting with the behavior of Jimmy and other characters. When Jimmy is mugged by some opportunistic thugs at the end of his night of phone sales, Jimmy almost learns a lesson about the dangers of acting as consigliore for Albuquerque’s criminal elements. He even reconsiders Kim’s therapist and scrapes the criminal-baiting slogan off the window of his cell phone store, seeming to replicate the “two steps forward, one step back” approach the show has consistently taken toward Jimmy’s transformation into Saul.*

* Retrospectively, it appears that the ad Jimmy painted on the windows was more of a move toward Jimmy becoming Saul than I initially thought. Rather than conspiracy-baiting, the advertisement is actually meant to appeal to people with illicit criminal enterprises, as we see when it works on a guy who is clearly involved in some shady business.

However, a chance encounter with Howard changes his course. Howard is a wreck, suffering from his guilt over Chuck, and Jimmy sympathetically tries to offer Howard Kim’s therapist recommendation. Howard turns him down, telling Jimmy he’s already seeing a therapist twice a week, which reconfirms Jimmy’s skepticism of therapy – especially because Jimmy thinks he’s in much better shape than Howard – and he flushes Kim’s recommendation down the toilet. Thus when Jimmy meets with his probation officer at the end of the episode and tells him about his post-probation plans to resume practicing law, we can easily read his resolution as a determination to become a criminal lawyer, as Jesse will later describe Saul.

It’s in Jimmy’s failure to learn a lesson about playing consigliore to criminals that this episode yields the most powerful parallel between Jimmy in the present and Saul in the flash forward: in each case, he becomes too vulnerable and suffers negative consequences from his associations. The only thing that differs is the scale of the consequence. In the present, he’s beaten, but in the future, he must vacate his life and assume a new identity.

The flash forward to Saul also raises some interesting possibilities about how Better Call Saul intends to handle Saul’s time on Breaking Bad. Perhaps rather than skipping over Breaking Bad entirely, or showing Saul engaged in other activities while also dealing with Walt and Jesse, Better Call Saul will instead spend most of its time with Jimmy, while also occasionally flashing forward to Saul on Breaking Bad, filling in bits and pieces of what wasn’t covered in the previous show. We might even flit around in time, observing whichever parts of Saul’s life that serve as an apt parallel or counterpoint to what’s happening in Jimmy’s life. It would certainly be an elegant solution to the dilemma of building up to a story that’s already been told, and then skipping past it to spend time with Gene.

Jimmy/Saul’s behavior in the present and in the flash forward also provides a point of contrast with Mike and Gus’s business this week, where they “interview” candidates for the construction of the super lab. If Jimmy and Saul are too reckless in their quasi-criminal exploits, then Mike and Gus are overly cautious. Gus hires Mike to arrange for getting the candidates to the site of the lab without letting the candidates know too much about Gus or the project prior to actually being hired, which involves phone messages, rented cars, hoods, and secretive van rides.

Gus eventually hires Werner Ziegler because Ziegler proves to be just as cautious as Gus and Mike, as evidenced by his comprehension of the full difficulty and danger of constructing Gus’s super lab in secrecy. However, we only understand these things retrospectively, through comparing Ziegler to another candidate featured earlier in the episode. The earlier candidate performs only a cursory inspection of the laundry site, and determines far too quickly that he can do the job in far too brief a time period. He also backs up his unrealistic claims by arguing from authority, citing his previous clandestine construction jobs rather than addressing any of the particular difficulties of the laundry site. However, the negative qualities of this candidate only become fully apparent in comparison with Ziegler, who takes his time to get measurements, sketches rudimentary designs, and more fully considers the difficulty of the project’s parameters. In short, we only realize the first candidate is bad in comparison with the much better second candidate. It’s another deft piece of narrational organization, but more importantly, it's also a way to create interest in a plot that could otherwise easily become rote. On the face of it, "Gus hires an architect to build the super lab" is not the most compelling story to tell in an episode, both because there aren't a lot of dramatic stakes, and because we know from Breaking Bad that the super lab eventually gets built. However, when it's arranged this way, it becomes more intriguing.

Thus Mike and Gus’s treatment of the architect candidates parallels Better Call Saul’s frequent treatment of its viewers: each is momentarily kept in the dark. The candidates don’t know where they’re going or what’s happening, and once they are hooded and escorted into a van, they are literally in the dark (emphasized through a few splashes of the first candidate’s subjectivity, particularly a point of view shot from underneath his hood, but also a close, mobile shot of the candidate’s hooded head). Only when they arrive at the laundry and Mike removes the hood do the candidates get their bearings.

Better Call Saul frequently treats viewers similarly. We often know far less than Mike or others as they carry out their plans, lacking even basic information like their motivation or goal. We can only understand their behavior retrospectively, once we see the results of their labor. Just like with the first architect candidate, who realizes where he is when his hood is removed, viewers also can only understand that this man is in fact a job candidate (and the reason for secrecy) once we recognize the laundry and the candidate gets to work. Suddenly, the scene’s place in the narrative makes sense. Effectively, viewers have had a hood removed from their heads as well. Better Call Saul often withholds information like this to generate interest in Mike and Gus's stories, which might otherwise appear to be merely drawing a line from the A to B (i.e., from Saul to Breaking Bad).

Kim’s plot picks up a thread begun in the previous episode, with her acting as a public defender for various people who have run afoul of the law. In doing so, her actions parallel Jimmy, who also assists criminals in this episode, although their motivations contrast sharply: Kim is acting out of altruism to defend juvenile delinquents who have been caught, whereas Jimmy is acting out of self-interest to abet criminals from getting caught.

While it’s nice to see Kim kick as much ass as a public defender as she does in any other task she sets for herself, at first, I was worried that the writers had forgotten that Kim’s major plot last season was that she was overworked as Mesa Verde’s lawyer. However, my fears were assuaged later when the episode revealed that Kim doesn’t really have the time to spare on these hard-luck cases: not only does she need to forgo a movie with Jimmy in order to catch up on work, but later her wandering legal eye gets her in hot water with Paige from Mesa Verde, who dresses down Kim for shrugging off Mesa Verde to help out a first-time drug offender. The good student in me was incredibly anxious over Kim’s shirking of her responsibilities. Kim has clearly used up whatever room for error there was with Mesa Verde, and while we have an idea of why she is bothered by her work for the bank, it’s unclear exactly where all of this is leading. Accordingly, her story provides one final contrast with the flash forward to Saul (one I mentioned last week but which the flash forward makes even more evident this week): if Jimmy's end is predetermined, Kim's is still open to a wide range of possibilities.

Other thoughts:

- Something else that occurred to me in this episode: The more we learn about Jimmy, the more it seems as though a lot of what we thought we knew about Saul could be more of a performance than the genuine article. After all, we never saw Saul outside of a professional context on Breaking Bad, so it could be that Jimmy never actually becomes the jaded and cynical person that we took Saul for, but merely pretends to be because it serves his goals. It’s an interesting possible direction for Better Call Saul, as it would preserve some of Jimmy’s decency even as he becomes Saul (and add a degree of nuance to Saul that was not really present in Breaking Bad). But then again, Breaking Bad was partly about how people can change, so perhaps Better Call Saul is aiming more for tragedy as we watch the good parts of Jimmy die.

- From a writing standpoint, It’s incredibly convenient that Jimmy/Saul/Gene has three names corresponding to the time periods before/during/after Breaking Bad, because the names essentially serve as shorthand for which part of the story you’re writing about. Thanks, Vince Gilligan!

- Another parallel between Jimmy in the present and Saul in the future: both snap cell phones in half. Except for Jimmy, it’s a show meant to sell a customer on the efficacy of the phones, whereas for Saul, breaking the phone is an actual security measure.

- The flash forward reminds us of what a tough negotiator Francesca was when we saw her deal with Walt when he broke into Saul’s office in season four of Breaking Bad. She seems to actively dislike Jimmy in this flash forward, leading me to wonder if it has to do with whatever happens between him and Kim, whom Francesca adores.

- I also enjoyed the poetic irony of Saul having to destroy the wall of his office on which the constitution is written, in order to get at the box behind it. Taking a box cutter to the constitution is an apt visualization of Saul’s entire law practice.

- Another question the flash forward raises: what’s in the box Saul removes from the wall? The box could become Better Call Saul’s equivalent of Breaking Bad’s ricin vial or machine gun: an object for viewers to puzzle over. In this case, rather than wondering what Saul will do with it, instead we’ll wonder what’s inside it. My current guess: keepsakes from his time with Kim, whom he wants to protect from any criminal elements that might spend time in his office.

- Does Jimmy actually know anything about the privacy of the phones he’s selling, other than what Ira told him last week? Or is he just enjoying the act of persuading people, which is so central to the professions that he enjoys (confidence man, lawyer)? Considering sketchiness of some of his clientele, I would hope his guarantee is actually worth something.

- I would be remiss if did not mention that Jimmy’s late night adventure takes place at a familiar location from Breaking Bad, the Dog House, which is where Jesse would always go when he was doing business, be it selling meth or buying a gun. We even see in the foreground a car with hydraulics that looks very much like Jesse’s car in season 1 (which will get shot up by Tuco and impounded by the police in season 2).

- I wouldn’t mind if Better Call Saul jumped forward a bit here to the end of Jimmy’s probation and/or the near completion of the super lab, much like how Breaking Bad used a montage sequence to skip over much of Walt’s time cooking meth under the cover of Vamonos Pest. Although perhaps there’s more story to mine in the intervening time (particularly with Nacho, who still must be given a history with Jimmy to make Saul suspect that Walt and Jesse were sent by Nacho when Saul first appears on Breaking Bad).

- We might see a further parallel in this episode between Jimmy’s first foray into advising criminals and Walt and Jesse’s first foray into sell cooking and meth. Both come with a learning curve, and both make mistakes.

- Kim helping out a first-time drug offender also offers a look at the negative effects of the drug world for those who buy and use them, something Breaking Bad seldom addressed.


  1. This was absolutely the best episode of the season thus far. The episode’s flash forward to Saul, in conjunction with Jimmy’s storyline for the same episode was the latest and most obvious (in a good way) reminder that this show won’t have a happy ending. Like with Walt in Breaking Bad, we see Jimmy getting a taste of crime, suffering for it, and briefly considering taking the straight and narrow path before turning back to crime.

    Kim also went into an interesting direction with her arc. Like you said, it provided a nice contrast between her and Jimmy and opened her storyline to any possible outcome (there a theory about the flash forward in which Saul telling Francesca “tell them jimmy sent you” means a connection to Kim.

  2. It's certainly a possibility that it means Kim! Although presumably, Francesca wouldn't need a referral from Jimmy if Jimmy was send her to Kim.