Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Better Call Saul Season 5, Episode 2, “50% Off”

In my recap of the season premiere, I questioned the extent to which Jimmy had turned into the Saul with whom we’re familiar from Breaking Bad, concluding that he still had some ways to go. Despite sporting a telltale Saul talisman in his earphone, “50% Off” illustrates even more clearly that there is still some distance between Jimmy and Saul.

In a way, Jimmy is back to where he was when Better Call Saul started – defending legally-challenged clients – but with an added burst of confidence, and a clearer marketing and methodological approach to his practice, courtesy of his year-long suspension and his negotiation of his fraught relationship with Chuck. Still missing, however, is an eagerness to take risks like conspiring with big-time criminals, or his happily engaging in his own large-scale criminal enterprises like money laundering (recall that Saul was the was the go-to expert on the subject for Walt and Jesse).

Instead he seems content to use his con man skills for little conveniences here and there, like manipulating clients, opposing counsel, or witnesses into doing what’s in his clients’ best interest, what’s most expedient for him, or what will help his cases, respectively. We saw as much in “Magic Man,” when he suggests to Kim a scam to get a foolish client to take a plea deal, and again in “50% Off” when he bribes a janitor to make the courthouse elevator break down with him and ADA Suzanne inside so that he can expedite settling a laundry list of cases with her.

Jimmy is in his element throughout the episode, juggling multiple cases and demonstrating a blend of Saul-like smarm and Jimmy-like charm. While his overzealousness in offering a 50% discount to new clients in the premiere leads to exactly what Kim feared (a pair of idiots use it as an excuse to go hog wild and commit a bunch of petty crimes), he is not yet the kind of lawyer who would know someone like Robert Forster’s fixer. To become that kind of lawyer – a criminal lawyer, as Jesse will put it on Breaking Bad – he’ll need an extra push, which finally seems to arrive at the end of “50% Off,” when Nacho enters into Jimmy’s orbit for the first time since midway through season one, presumably to hire him to defend Krazy-8, who is arrested in this episode for getting caught with meth.

In the episode’s final scene, Nacho picks up Jimmy off of the street, and makes him drop an ice cream cone on the ground before getting into Nacho’s car, with the last shot lingering on the discarded cone. The scene seems like a momentous turning point for two reasons, the first being the ominous emphasis on the cone. Even the choice to have Jimmy indulge in an ice cream cone is significant. Not only is his enjoyment of it representative of how happy Jimmy is to be running his own practice his way, but it’s also a rather childlike indulgence, one that suggests there is still some relative innocence to Jimmy, even if it will be eventually be blotted out by Saul’s crassness. Even more significantly, ice cream is also associated with Kim – it’s Jimmy and Kim’s ritual to watch classic Hollywood movies together while eating ice cream – thus his discarding of the cone, and the camera lingering on it in the episode’s final shot, could be considered yet more ominous foreshadowing of the ruination of their relationship.

The second reason this scene seems like a momentous turning point is that it marks the first time since the end of season one where the two halves of Better Call Saul have intersected in any meaningful way. In seasons two through four, Better Call Saul has been like two shows in one: a legal drama and a drug cartel drama, with Jimmy, Kim and Chuck populating the former and Mike, Gus and Nacho the latter, never the twain shall they meet. The writers have been partly hamstrung by Breaking Bad, which established that Saul never knowingly met Gus (although the two crossed paths when Mike had Jimmy do reconnaissance at a Los Pollos Hermanos), but this split in the series’ plots is largely a product of the writers changing their approach to the show between seasons one and two, if I recall my knowledge of the behind-the-scenes wrangling correctly.

The end of season one seemed to show Jimmy leaping toward becoming Saul when he tells Mike that he’ll never make the mistake of doing the right thing again, and abandoning a job interview with Davis & Main. However, between seasons, the writers decided to slow things down a bit and tease out Jimmy’s transformation in more detail. Thus the start of season two walked back Jimmy’s turn toward Saul, having him take the Davis & Main job instead.

One of the byproducts of delaying Jimmy’s transformation into Saul was that it also delayed any real meaningful way of integrating the cartel and legal storylines. Now, however, with Better Call Saul nearing its end game, and with Jimmy closer than ever to becoming the Saul we know from Breaking Bad, the two halves of the show can finally start to influence one another again. After all, what better way to watch Jimmy spiral ever deeper into Saul’s amorality than by wrapping it up with Nacho, Lalo and the cartels? I anticipate the joining of Better Call Saul’s two halves will ratchet up the stakes as well, and complicate things for the characters whose fates are still unknown.

Unlike Jimmy, Gus is someone who has undergone almost no change over the course of Better Call Saul. He’s just as ruthless and cunning here as he ever was in Breaking Bad, which he demonstrates in “50% Off” by leaning on Nacho to gather intelligence on Lalo. In forcing Nacho to find a way into Lalo’s trust, Gus is particularly cruel to Nacho, threatening Nacho’s father even more explicitly than Hector ever did in order to ensure Nacho continues to be a dutiful mole, even though Nacho has been nothing but compliant with Gus thus far. As always, Gus’s weaknesses are his hatred and his need to inflict pain; it’s what gets him killed on Breaking Bad, and it’s what blinds him to the potential value of Nacho’s willing loyalty here. Nacho’s quick thinking could be quite an asset for Gus if he were willing to cultivate Nacho’s loyalty, but Gus sees him as just another Salamanca scumbag, as worthy of his hatred as anyone who actually shares the Salamanca name.

If anything has changed about Gus in Better Call Saul, it’s my relationship to him, and the degree of comfort I have in sympathizing with him, which has been tarnished considerably by his treatment of Nacho. Yes, Gus has always been a notorious villain, but on Breaking Bad, his villainy was largely in the context of his being a foil for Walt, who was often a deeply unlikable character himself. Nacho is far more sympathetic (he’s more like Jesse than Walt), thus it’s uncomfortable to see Gus treat Nacho so terribly.

Ultimately, it’s a good storytelling move for Nacho to have some motivation to continue to be a mole, even if it comes at the expense of my sympathy for Gus, because it adds a lot of suspense to Nacho and Lalo’s interactions. We see as much in all of their scenes in this episode, not only in obvious cases, like Nacho’s willingness to risk arrest and retrieve a meth stash that’s about to be confiscated by the DEA, but also in quieter scenes, like during an earlier poker game. Nacho tries to ingratiate himself with Lalo by bringing up the success of one of their distribution locations, but his timing is poor, and Lalo is irritated that Nacho is interrupting his poker hand with business talk. What would be a minor point of conflict is laden with much more dramatic tension with the threat of Gus hanging over Nacho’s head.

This misstep aside, Nacho has actually become quite good at manipulating people, as evidenced by the end of the episode, when he offers to “take care” of Krazy-8 when Lalo wonders if he can be trusted to keep his mouth shut, even though Nacho has just vouched for him and told Lalo they’ve known each other a long time. I look forward to subsequent scenes where Nacho also has to outwit Lalo, a tall task, given Lalo’s intelligence and tenacity, but Nacho seems up to it. Gus might be doing him a great disservice, but it yields dramatic fruit for viewers.

Other thoughts:

- More evidence that Jimmy is not yet full-flowered Saul: he needs to psych himself up to try to convince Suzanne to move up their scheduled meeting. Moreover, his persuasion attempt fails because she sees through him: he’s accelerating his schedule to turn over clients faster and make more money, further lowering her esteem for him.

- Some impressive stylization of the courthouse scene showing Jimmy in his element, gliding smoothly between clients, attorneys, and courthouse staffers as he balances the ludicrous number of cases he’s taken on. It would be even more impressive were it one long take, but multiple cuts throughout break up the action.

- As soon as the elevator broke down with Jimmy/Saul and Suzanne inside it, I immediately suspected foul play, and tellingly, it’s the first time I didn’t hesitate to refer to Jimmy as Saul in my notes. It’s a slippery slope from here to Cinnabon Gene.

- More interesting shades of Lalo in this one. When Nacho leaves Lalo to retrieve the meth stash, the dealers who normally work the corner are scared for him, but Lalo is wildly entertained, obviously caring very little about whether Nacho actually gets caught. It’s a little bit of the familiar Salamanca sociopathy peeking through. Although once again, he also differs from other Salamancas in that he doesn’t want to kill Krazy-8, which seems to be the normal solution other Salamancas have for eliminating problems.

- Mike’s horrible handing of Kaylee’s questions about her father Matt serve as a nice reminder that Mike suffers from crippling guilt over his role in Matt’s death. We've seen him suffer from his inability to deal with his emotions in the past, like in his self-destruction in group therapy, and here it rears its ugly head again in his conduct with Kaylee, courtesy Ziegler's murder still being fresh in his mind.

- Some seeds planted for later episodes: Lalo’s plan for Krazy-8, and Howard wanting to schedule a meeting with Jimmy.

- Jimmy senses he crossed a line with Kim in the previous episode with regard to her public defender case, so he takes her for some impromptu house hunting to make peace, and it works. She opens up to him about not ever wanting to lie to her clients, and he apologizes, which allows them to have some fun. The scene ends with them thinking about owning a house together “some day.” It’s important to include in this episode, because it helps to underline the significance of Jimmy getting into the car with Nacho – this is the likely the first in a long line of decisions that will lead to that dream never being realized.

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