Monday, February 24, 2020

Better Call Saul, Season 5, Episode 1, “Magic Man”

Season four of Better Call Saul had a slow start, but finished strong. Season five, by contrast, has come out of the gate firing on all cylinders. “Magic Man” is a crackerjack episode from start to finish, picking up right where things left off in all of the show’s serialized plots: the adventures of Cinnabon Gene, Jimmy’s transformation into Saul, and the Cartel Corner, featuring Mike, Gus, Nacho, and now Lalo.

Let’s start with Jimmy, or Saul, as he's largely become by this point. We’ve seen inklings of Jimmy’s Saul Goodman persona over the course of the previous four seasons. However, in the wake of his successful appeal to the Bar Association, he seemed to take his biggest stride yet toward becoming Saul. It’s not just that his reinstatement is the moment when he decided to change his business name to Saul Goodman, but that he took such malicious glee in so successfully manipulating the Bar Association, and that he also unknowingly tricked Kim (and likely many viewers) in the process. The Jimmy we’ve known for the past four seasons certainly could have meant what he said in his closing statement (about trying to be a good person regardless of whether the Bar allowed him to practice law again), but presenting an earnest version of himself as a means of manipulating the Bar – and then maliciously relishing in his successful manipulation – is the kind of thing only Saul would do.

“Magic Man” finds Jimmy largely preoccupied with completing his transformation into Saul. He connects the dots viewers had already put together last season about his burner phone clientele becoming his attorney client base, literally pitching a circus tent in a sketchy Albuquerque nightlife area to sell his services to those most likely to need it. It’s a nice little montage sequence, once again showing Jimmy/Saul’s charm and ability to read a room by changing his business pitch to suit whoever happens to be sitting across from him. Later, he drums up more business with the kind of publicity stunt that got him into hot water with Davis & Main in season two, ambushing deputy district attorney Bill Oakley in the courthouse with a fake news crew (played by his now-familiar film crew), lobbing farfetched accusations about corruption in the D.A.’s office and loudly broadcasting his commitment to his clients. It’s transparent showboating, but it works, piquing the interest of people already in the courthouse, who all take his card.

Of course, Jimmy hasn’t completely become the Saul we know from Breaking Bad. Aside from still missing superficial things like his office, his Cadillac, and his employment of Francesca, he also still has Kim to push back against some of his worse impulses, but it seems she’s fighting a losing battle. Much of the Jimmy/Kim portion of “Magic Man” deals with her dawning realization that Jimmy is no longer same guy as before. She begins the episode still thunderstruck by Jimmy’s revelation of his insincerity and his decision to change his business name, and later challenges his determination to market himself to Albuquerque’s legally-challenged. She takes a number of tacks, but he deflects all of them, either through cynicism, willful misinterpretation, or heady optimism. Kim is rightly concerned, but she doesn’t yet realize what we discovered in last season’s finale: Jimmy is determined to make the law community pay for their prejudice against him by vindictively taking advantage of the legal system they (and Chuck) hold so dear.

To some extent, Kim’s concern for Jimmy (and the potential it has to derail their relationship) is a retread of previous territory: season four already saw Jimmy and Kim grow apart, only to be pushed back together when Kim gets a thrill out of conning the D.A.’s office into treating Huell leniently. What’s different this time around is that rather than the threat of their simply growing apart, now Kim and Jimmy’s relationship is also imperiled by Kim’s queasiness about the influence Jimmy is having on her.

This queasiness is illustrated wonderfully by a scene that caps off “Magic Man.” Kim has negotiated a fantastic plea deal involving minimal jail time for Bobby, one of her public defender clients, but Bobby is foolishly leaning toward going to trial on the very slim chance he might not get any jail time at all. When Jimmy happens by, Kim takes him aside to explain the situation, and Jimmy comes up with a confidence scheme to get Bobby to agree to take the plea deal. Jimmy gives Kim a hard sell, but Kim vehemently refuses; she doesn’t want to con Bobby like she and Jimmy have conned others in the past, even if it’s for his own good. Yet when she returns to Bobby, she unenthusiastically proceeds with Jimmy’s con anyway, and it works beautifully, even though she hates herself for it.

After convincing Bobby to take the plea deal, Kim feels so dirty that she runs to the stairwell to gain her composure. The shot composition is very similar to when she passionately kissed Jimmy in season four’s “Coushatta” after helping Huell, and it serves to highlight the contrast in Kim’s behavior. In “Coushatta,” she was invigorated by pulling off the con with Jimmy, but now she’s just disgusted and ashamed.

The contrast speaks to the change Kim detects in Jimmy (or Saul, really), and to their perhaps insurmountable differences. Both of them enjoy defending their criminal clients, but their motivations and their tactics differ. Kim sees her public defender work as a moral good. She finds fulfillment in helping people by not letting their mistakes ruin their lives. So naturally, she is highly resistant to crossing ethical lines by scamming her clients, even if it's to help them, and even if she’s enjoyed the previous cons she’s run with Jimmy

Jimmy, on the other hand, has no problems crossing any and all ethical boundaries. In fact, he’s so eager to do so that he can’t see the difference between conning an adversary and conning a client who trusts him; he is dumbfounded by Kim’s resistance to scamming Bobby. Kim’s disgust with herself at the end of “Magic Man” thus seems to provide motivation - once again - for the end of their relationship, but where Kim is fully aware of Jimmy/Saul's immorality, and the corrosive effect Jimmy/Saul can have on the people around him.

The cartel corner of Better Call Saul also begins this season dealing with the ramifications of last season, particularly Lalo’s discovery of Ziegler and Gus’s construction project. After proving himself to be a formidable match for Mike last season, he does the same for Gus in “Magic Man.” Lalo is essentially a Salamanca version of Mike: an intelligent and unflappable detective and fixer, albeit one with more social graces and less aversion to violence. Thus the fun of his investigation into the off-brand meth Gus provided Nacho, and the fun of his matching wits with Gus and Mike.

Take, for instance, his meeting with Juan and Gus in this episode, which Gus seems to have arranged precisely to throw Lalo off the scent of the super lab. Gus concocts a story about Ziegler that explains what Lalo learned of him last season (as well as Lalo’s interactions with Mike), along with the inferior meth. Lalo, intelligent as he is, pries deeper after the information he managed to learn from Ziegler about the construction project. And Gus, intelligent as he is, has prepared an answer for him. Lalo clearly doesn’t buy Gus’s convenient explanations, but on Juan’s urging, agrees to let it lie for the time being.

These scenes are effective at building up Lalo as a formidable opponent (and very unlike the previous Salamancas we’ve known), but so is the scene that follows them, where Gus insists that construction of the super lab cease until Lalo is no longer around to interfere. Gus knows that Lalo didn’t buy Gus’s story about Ziegler, and while Lalo might be done with Gus, Gus isn’t done with Lalo.

One last interesting note about the cartel corner: Mike refuses Gus’s offer to stay on retainer. Mike is still upset about having to kill Ziegler, so he understandably wants nothing to do with Gus’s operation. Just as with Jimmy and Kim’s plotlines, for every two steps Better Call Saul makes toward Breaking Bad, it also takes one step back. It will be interesting to see how Mike comes back into Gus’s fold, as he must, and it will likely happen sooner rather than later, considering that this is the penultimate season of Better Call Saul.

Other thoughts:

- As we get closer and closer to the end of Better Call Saul, I become more and more curious about how the series will negotiate the Breaking Bad years, and the epilogue with Cinnabon Gene. Will we spend any time with Saul during this period? Lots of questions left to answer about the characters whose fates we don’t know: Kim, Nacho, Lalo.

- I also wonder how the next season will negotiate the Cinnabon Gene scenes. We got our most extended look at Gene’s life yet in “Magic Man,” which like all of the other plots, picked up right where the Gene prologue from season four left off, and which concludes with Gene having been identified as Saul by the cabbie who drove him back from the hospital last season. One of my hopes had been that parts of the final season of Better Call Saul might have taken place largely in Gene’s world, where parts of his past catch up to him (perhaps including Kim and/or Nacho), but that seems less likely now, especially considering that Gene resolves to fix the problem himself rather than buy the help of Robert Forsters’ fixer character again. I suppose we’ll have to stay tuned for next season to find out, as the slow drip of Gene’s life continues.

- What a nice surprise it was to see Robert Forster again. His showing up in El Camino was a treat too, but it was extra-heartwarming here, given his recent passing.

- Nice editing in this one, using many commercial breaks as punctuation for a scene. One of the best: Kim tells Jimmy she can’t quite picture his Saul Goodman law practice yet, and just before cutting to commercial, Jimmy ominously replies, “It’s okay, you will.” 

- Nacho denies knowing anyone named Mike when Lalo asks him about it, but not only does Nacho know Mike, it was Mike who suggested to Nacho the final step in Nacho’s plan to remove Hector from active cartel life: swapping the placebos for the real thing once Hector suffered his health scare. Mike was also instrumental in planning with Nacho to have Tuco arrested. Once again, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for Nacho, who now needs to worry about pleasing Lalo while also working as a mole for Gus.

- Lalo’s catchphrase: “Show me!” He declares it to Nacho back when he wants to see the chicken farm in season four, and he happily shouts it again when he wants to see the stepped-on meth.

- Where did Gus get the off-brand meth? From the streets, as he claimed? Perhaps it’s from a non-super lab Gale cook.

- Nice little scene of Mike bidding auf wiedersehen to Ziegler’s construction crew, where he finally gets to punch Kai in the face when Kai offers an insensitive attempt at condolences. However, the truly cutting remark comes from another crew member, who says that Ziegler was worth fifty of Mike.

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