Sunday, April 26, 2009

Breaking Bad, "Better Call Saul": The cost of doing business

Spoilers for tonight's "Breaking Bad" coming up just as soon as I put a dollar in your pocket...
"You don't want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer." -Jesse
"Breaking Bad" is a show that's usually driven far more by character than plot, but every now and then we get an episode like "Better Call Saul" that moves the storyline dramatically forward. But what's great about it is how the plot is still motivated by what the characters want.

Badger, Jesse's knucklehead chief dealer, gets busted by an undercover cop (guest star DJ Qualls) -- after falling victim to the urban legend about cops having to identify themselves if asked -- and aspiring but largely clueless criminal masterminds Jesse and Walt have to turn to the city's most prominent sleazebag defense lawyer, the titular Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, sporting a spectacularly ugly combover) to sort out the mess, which includes Hank trying to pressure Badger to flip on the mysterious Mr. Heisenberg.

When Walt and Jesse don ski masks and try to threaten Saul into getting Badger off without letting him rat on them, Saul asks the question anyone might ask of the drug lords these two claim to be: "Why don't you just kill Badger?"

In a traditional criminal enterprise of the scope that Walt wants to achieve, that'd be the simple answer: much less expensive than the scam Saul eventually puts together for them, and less complicated, too. And you can see Walt -- who, after all, has killed before, and who's been pushing the business expansion -- considering it, where Jesse -- who has yet to kill anyone, and who's been pushed into this by Walt -- will absolutely not have his friend killed, stupid or not. And because Walt needs Jesse -- and because he does, on some level, feel guilty for what he's done to the kid (specifically the Spooge incident), Walt yields, even though it wipes out virtually all of their profits to date.

But having helped them pull off this convoluted plan, Saul tries to insert himself as Tom Hagen to Walt's Vito Corleone, which could be either the best or worst thing to happen to Walt's criminal career to date. Saul knows how to get things done -- or at least gives the appearance that he does -- and could certainly point out all the mistakes we've all noticed Walt and Jesse making, in the same way that Maury Levy on "The Wire" was essentially the third leader of the Barksdale/Bell empire. But he also believes they're soft touches -- and has no idea that Walt killed Emilio and Krazy 8 -- and as Spooge's former lawyer he knows that Jesse's street rep is built on a lie. So he could view them as easy marks to bleed, in the same way (to continue "The Wire" comparison) Clay Davis swindled Stringer Bell.

And whether Saul turns out to be savior or scam artist, there's the larger matter of Hank. I was mistaken when I suggested last week that he would rise high in the El Paso office after surviving the exploding tortoise attack. Clearly, the survivors pointed out that Hank was having a freak-out right before the turtle shell blew, and so he's been sent back to the less dangerous -- but, for Hank, far more comfortable -- environs of Albuquerque. And even though he's still faking his way through the job (his psych-up routine in the elevator looked an awful lot like Jesse standing on Spooge's porch and rehearsing his threats), Hank's not stupid; he sees that something's all wrong with this Jimmy character being Heisenberg. Even if it's unfathomable to him that his goofy brother-in-law without the "experiential overlap" could be the drug lord he's looking for, I doubt he's going to stop looking, and unless Saul is as good as he claims, sooner or later Hank's going to cross Walt's path when Walt doesn't want him to, instead of vice versa.

Some other thoughts on "Better Call Saul":

• The scene where Walt shows up to help talk Hank out of the bedroom was very nicely-played by both Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris (and scripted by Peter Gould). The show keeps doing these moments where it seems like Walt is on the verge of confessing his criminal life to someone (the shrink, Skyler, Hank), and instead he manages to find a version of the truth that somehow doesn't include crystal meth but proves applicable to the situation. Though he's inexperienced at the crime game, in some ways, Saul Goodman could learn a lot from Walt when it comes to BS.

• Another call I was wrong on: that Skank would in some way be able to implicate Jesse in Spooge's murder. Instead, Saul calls it an open and shut case, so either she was so high she forgot "Diesel" was even there at all, or the cops decided it was so obvious she killed him that they didn't much care about her alternate theory of the crime.

• We get a major piece of the Jane puzzle when she tosses Jesse her 18-month sobriety chip. That both explains her initial reticence and her eventual attraction: she knows Jesse is bad for her, but her willpower only goes so far.

• I loved the return of the coin flip as the ultimate decider in any Walt/Jesse dispute. One of my favorite comic scenes from season one was Jesse ranting about the sanctity of the coin flip when they were arguing over who had to kill Krazy 8 and who had to dispose of Emilio.

• Skyler's largely off-screen this week, other than a glimpse of her showing off a lot of pregnant cleavage while preparing for a weekend business meeting with new/old boss Ted. I know there was some speculation last week that the thing with Ted was less sexual harassment than mutual flirtation (if not a full-blown affair); does that outfit send any kind of signal, or would it be logistically challenging for a woman in Skyler's condition to not put the girls on display a little?

• If you haven't already seen it, last week the LA Times had a story about the fake narcocorrido music video that opened "Negro Y Azul."

James Poniewozik argued that "Breaking Bad" consistently has the best pre-credits sequence of any show on television right now, and I'd have to agree. The undercover sting on Badger was more low-key than things like the narcocorrido song, or all our glimpses of the burned teddy bear, but I admired how, in typical "Breaking Bad" fashion, it took its sweet time getting to the punchline, lingering forever (in a single shot) on Badger letting himself get outsmarted by the cop.

What did everybody else think?


Josh Mauthe said...

I agree wholeheartedly about the pre-credits sequences. The show has practically been a how-to guide on teasers, from the surreal opening of episode 2 (with that awesome use of the car on hydraulics) to the disturbing imagery of the aftermath of whatever's happened to Walt's pool.

But this week's was completely hilarious. The appearance of the two vans at the end was the greatest punchline imaginable for that bit.

Anonymous said...

I have felt the one aspect missing from the brilliance of the Breaking Bad narrative is a character inside the illegal drug trade that represents the non-hysterical administrative reality of an operational business. Cue Saul. Stage lights up and let the self assured banter begin. My experience was that this episode earned more honestly derived laughs from the material than any of the preceding hours.

Unknown said...

Another fantastic from an increasingly fantastic show.

This was the first time that a performance from Bob Odenkirk was believable for me. I love the guy and am in awe of the sheer amount of genius comedy this guy either created or was part of. However, all this performances have this slightly larger than life winking quality that was keyed down tonight to make his performance both hilarious and believable as a real character.

Maybe a show this good just stepped up his game.

JoeE said...

Does anyone doubt that Badger would be dead in prison if Walt had gotten his way? He obviously knows that leaving him alive is the only way to keep Jesse around, but Walt has shown that he has zero patience for what he perceives as the inadequacies and failings of others in his new life. Look at how he lashes out at the chemistry student with his test grade - I got some truly embarrassing test scores from time to time when I was in school, but I've never been so unfortunate as to have a teacher directly mock me for them. I can't see him weighing his options and deciding that some low-level drug dealer's life is worth the $80,000 (again, from his perspective).

I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually gets tired with Jesse as well, if he finds a way to do business without him. Jesse is going to have to learn to not turn his back on Walt if he wants to survive, in any case.

Anonymous said...

The beginning was good, but the self-mocking exit was killer: "If ya wanna make more money 'n keep the money you make - better call Saul!"

Did anyone catch the name of the guy Saul is worried about at the abduction grave? DaLalo? Right after he says "it wasn't me it was Ignazio." And then Saul says something in Spanish which sounded like "Siempre son amigo del cartel(?)". I have a feeling that something from the shady lawyer's backstory is going to crash into Walt & Jessie's cooking bus.
- anonymoose

Gail said...

Alan, who played the skinny DEA agent (kinda resembled Stephen Merchant from The Office). I know I've seen him before, but he's not listed on IMDB.

Not too much tension, a chance to catch your breath and try to figure out the direction the next few episodes will take. Involving more people sure complicates things, and now you have , I'm sure, Skyler telling lies as calmly as Walt.

Tariq said...

Gail, he's DJ Qualls. He was in movies like Road Trip, The New Guy

Anonymous said...

Dude, I have never seen this show but the opening scene on the bench had me falling over laughing.

Go over there and punch that dude in the face.


Anonymous said...

"Its in the constitution."

"The constitution of America?"


Kensington said...

The introduction of Saul is a masterstroke. Without someone like him, a man who might actually know his way around a criminal enterprise without all the rookie mistakes, I was seriously starting to worry that the show was painting itself into a corner.

How long could a guy like Walt really carry on before Hank connected the dots? Not long, I figured. Especially given the flashbacks involving evidence bags and Walt's pool, an end of season bust seemed inevitable, and how could the show continue beyond that? What else would there really be to say?

Now, thanks to Saul, it's clear that the waters are about to get remarkably muddy for everyone, and that's brilliant.

In other matters, I still find it startling when the show makes it clear how far down Walt has gone. It's obvious he would have sanctioned murdering Badger with little hesitation. Gone is the man who cried in frustration when he realized he'd have to kill Crazy 8, even in self-defense.

Now, the life of a dimwitted dealer who'd never done a thing to hurt him means almost nothing. In his heart Walt is a stone cold murderer now.

Still, it's hard to argue with him from a financial position. If they're going to be dropping 80 large every time somebody gets busted, this whole thing will have been for nothing.

What an amazing show this is!

Unknown said...

If Dave Odenkirk doesn't get an Emmy nomination, it will be a shame. He was absolutely brilliant.

Mike F said...

I think those of you that think Walt would have agreed to killing Badger are flat out wrong...he's "not even close" to that far down the slippery slope. I think you guys are forgetting the scene where he changes his mind and tells Jessie to forget about the retribution (although it was too late).

Just like Walt grading his student's paper and giving him a failing mark, Saul Goodman gives Walt a big fat F in the last scene of the episode...this episode was a good reminder that he's still got a lot to learn about the game.

Anonymous said...

I love the show, and getting to see Odenkirk was a treat, but I thought it was just a little too convenient that Saul just happens to have a guy in his bag of tricks that willingly goes to jail for money -- and he just happens to be bald and in Walt's age range.

Anonymous said...

Mike F,

I'm not sure Walt would outright kill Badger, but I think he might be willing to stand by and let him go to prison. That's consistent with the mercilessness he shows when grading the chem tests.


The person Saul was afraid of was Lalo, I think.

Not only is Saul dangerous if he has connections to the cartel but there's also a possibility that he has indirect connections to Uncle Tio.

Also, can someone clarify what exactly Saul is going to do for Walt? I understand the legal advice part and the secure safe part, but was he also offering to middleman product to the cartel or something to widen Walt's operation? I was surprised when he took a pound of product as part of his payment, but I guess it would make sense if he can sell it to other distributors.

Anonymous said...

Saul has me scared for this show. I actually think the casting of Odenkirk is a little too cute. If he is to be a big part of this show going forward, I wish they had picked an actor with a little more (for lack of a better word) gravitas, and not someone so damn funny. Some of this drifted too far into "Mr. Show" territory.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised when he took a pound of product as part of his payment, but I guess it would make sense if he can sell it to other distributors.The pound of product was not for Saul, it was part of the set-up. The fake Heisenberg was "selling" the pound to Badger when the bust went down. Without the pound of meth, there wouldn't be a bust and Badger wouldn't get his deal.

Great show. Great episode. I agree that Walt wasn't ready to kill Badger yet. If he wanted to do it, he would have done it. Walt has a way of getting his way. It shows the progression of his character though. In the beginning, it was about the money. As the show progresses, both Walt and Jesse are seeing clearly the consequences of what they are doing, both personally and socially--the little boy at the house when Jesse went to confront the two junkies that stole his money was so purely representative of Jesse's own "innocence lost"--yet they press on. You know it's all going to end badly for everyone--there is no conceivable happy ending here, not even a "life goes on" ending ala The Sopranos. And yet I can't stop watching... Great!

Mark B said...

I think Breaking Bad needs a Saul Goodman to keep moving forward without the storyline becoming implausibly absurd. This series started as a “get rich quick” story and there are realities insuring virtually all instant wealth schemes end in failure. A character who knows the facts and emotions in the criminal justice system in enough detail to comfortably joke about them is what this narrative needs to keep it going forward within believable boundaries.

rj said...

Saul started off the episode broad but ended sinister. Similar things have happened with Aaron Paul and Dean Norris' characters, just over more than one episode length. So I'm hoping they develop the sinister side and let the goofy side fade.

Also, I wondered if the reference to Lalo was a nod to the House of Death. It's the first thing I thought of, but my reading habits are peculiar and I have no idea how common a name "Lalo" is.

Rkex said...

Saul didn't keep the pound for himself. It was sacrificed in the bust of the fake "Heisenberg". They had to have something to bust him for, right?


Jon said...

I'm betting that Saul is going to be a casualty of the Mexican drug lords. He now knows too much and has too many fingers in the underworld...and I don't think Walt would step in to help if it appeared that Saul was in trouble. He's bound to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Loved that line about killing the mosquito, not the mosquito's lawyer! Priceless!

Still betting that the charred teddy bear is tied to the Walt Jr. subplot.

Hyde said...

I see I wasn't the only one thinking of Maury Levy while watching this week. Another good episode, though like Anonymous 9:44, I wonder if Saul was a little too broad. He seems too much the buffoon to ever be menacing (though I was amused to find out that Saul is only pretending to be Jewish).

And I wonder about the plausibility of the fake bust. How can the existence of someone who has been doing jail time for money for decades not be known to everyone in the Albuquerque criminal law community?

digamma said...

I thought Walt's Isotopes cap was a shout out to The Simpsons, but then I remembered that Albuquerque actually NAMED their minor league team the Isotopes in honor of The Simpsons.

The Michael Scott Paper Company's accountant could explain to Walt and Jesse how when your business grows your expenses grow faster.

I wonder how conscious the Breaking Bad writers are of The Wire. Like Sepinwall, I have a hard time watching it without comparing their every move to their Baltimore equivalents. I suspect there's a fairly high level of awareness, and they're careful not to duplicate David Simon's work.

Anonymous said...

I usually love Bod Odenkirk but he does not fit on BB, and his character Saul is way too broad. Because of Saul, his substitute prisoner scheme, and the wacky hijinks that ensued, this episode felt completely different than the rest of the season so far.

I did enjoy the pre-credit scene and there was some other good stuff in there like the first conversation between Walt and Hank, but overall this did feel like the same show that I've been enjoying so much for the past couple months.

Anonymous said...

What happened to the tow truck driver that Jesse stiffed when he broke in and took his RV?

Was this plot point addressed?

Surely he wouldn't let this go without retribution.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Jesse went back to see the guy in the very next episode, paid him what he owed, plus extra for the gate and the port-a-john, then arranged to garage the RV there regularly.

Anonymous said...

Looks like I missed an ep.


Anonymous said...

I just have this feeling that Breaking Bad will end in tragedy. Walt will either end up dead or in prison or live to be a drug kingpin but with his family (the one who he says he's doing all of this for) estranged from him. And when I look at Walt and Jesse, I find myself thinking of Vic and Shane from the Shield. Shane was a bastard but if it wasn't for Vic, he wouldn't done half of the things he's done or gotten himself into some of the messes caused by Vic's actions. However, Vic denies his role in Shane's descent, thinking that all of the blame is on him. So, in the scenario of Breaking Bad, Walter is Vic and Jesse is Shane. And, for those who've seen the Shield, we all know how things between them ended. I also think Jesse's new girlfriend will create a conflict between Walter and Jesse the way Shane's wife among other things created a conflict between Vic and Shane in Season 3.

Eldritch said...

Alan said,
"Skyler's largely off-screen this week, other than a glimpse of her showing off a lot of pregnant cleavage while preparing for a weekend business meeting with new/old boss Ted. "
I agreed with Walt that she was dressed a little too well for a Saturday work day. She also struck me as a little evasive when she justified dressing that attractively for working overtime.

This show regularly surprises me by not exploiting events that seem setups to a plot development, but that still struck me as a hint that she's got something romantic going on.

Karen said...

"Conscience gets expensive"--Walt doesn't look like he wants to pay for that luxury.

It struck me, as Hank decried the lack of "experiential overlap" that Walt has dealt with killing far more successfully than his bad-ass brother-in-law; conscience definitely doesn't seem to be much of a problem for him.

And yet--Jesse and Walt fumbling to let Jesse back in the car after the bust really underscored their amateur status, and Hank's suspicious stare at Jimmy the professional convict underscored how good he is at his. And that final scene with Saul underscored how good he is at his job, too. Jesse wasn't kidding when he referred to him as a criminal lawyer.

Great, great episode.

Unknown said...

"Conscience do cost." -Butchie

Anonymous said...

Another great episode, and I agree with the above comment about the fact that the BB writers are definitely aware of David Simon's work on The Wire, and it was nice to see them bring in a "Levy" type of character. One thing that I think that Breaking Bad has done better than The Wire, is that it is consistently funny every episode. The Wire had those moments of throwaway comedy like Rawls in the gay bar, or when Bernard says, "I can't wait to go to jail". The beginning with the two vans appearing at the end had me laughing harder then some of The Office episodes this season. Great job by Gilligan and company, in my opinion this is the best drama on television.

BTW Alan, I think that the Skyler-Boss relationship definitely might have been mutual in the past, and no so much the harassment that you alluded to earlier.

Carla said...

Jon said...Still betting that the charred teddy bear is tied to the Walt Jr. subplot.What Walt Jr. subplot?

Brian said...

To anonymous complaining that Odenkirk lacks "gravitas" -- Saul Goodman is a sleazeball crook, a low-rent Maurice Levy (as Alan pointed out), and I don't think a character like that must (or should) be played with gravitas. Bob has perfected that oily grifter role (he did a few variations of it on Mr. Show) and he's pulling off Saul just fine. Maybe he does have a natural tendency to veer off into comedic territory, but the quality of the writing should be enough to keep him more or less on track.

It was refreshing to see a Skyler-free episode, truth be told. The writers still haven't completely cracked that character, in terms of making her interesting or surprising, and I don't have much faith in the flirty-boss plotline.

Jon said...

Carla said...Still betting that the charred teddy bear is tied to the Walt Jr. subplot.What Walt Jr. subplot?

Walt Jr. is never home and is completely neglected by his parents, he changed his name, and who knows what effect that trip to the meth hotel with Uncle Hank had on him? Plus there was that scene a few episodes ago where he and his dad talked about how they were going to get revenge on the person who put the flyer on the car...and Walt Jr.'s solution was more grisly than his dad's! I think there's something there, lurking under the radar.

Anonymous said...

This episode was the least believable yet. The best part of the show was Saul.

It appears that Saul will be the vehicle to the Mexican Cartel.

I predict Jessie will get done in by his new girl friend.


James Kang said...

A fantastic episode in a crackerjack series. Odenkirk was hilarious. I don't think I would've bought DJ Qualls if they had introduced him as just a cop, but an undercover cop? For some reason, I can buy that.

Is it just me or did they screw up that Godfather reference at the end? Saul says something like, "I wanna be Tom Hagen to your Don Corleone. But right now, you're Fredo." I think the writers meant to say Michael instead of Fredo. Michael was Al Pacino's character and rose to power in the first film. Fredo was Michael's brother who betrayed the family. Unless they're referring to some similarity between Fredo and Walt that I'm missing.

Mark B said...

Fredo = Clueless Dope, or perhaps more accurately, Clueless Poser.

Anonymous said...

It's Bob Odenkirk. David Cross was the Dave in Mr. Show.

that skinny guy also played Hurley's best friend on LOST who worked in the chicken shack with him!

LOST in 7 y'all!!!

Greg said...

Really enjoyed this week's show, as I have all of Breaking Bad.
Just wanted to point out a Badger sighting that I didn't put together until yesterday....
There is a Midas commercial where he crashes his car through the brake shop. At the end, he rolls down his window and says, "I think I need some new brakes."
And it's in that same Badger voice - which just struck me as hilarious. Guess that's his real voice.
Anyway, that has little to do with this week, but thought it was really funny.

Anonymous said...

Love Saul. Show just keeps getting better and better.

Skyler knows in her soul that Walt is keeping a secret from her and it really doesn't matter what the secret is. She feels betrayed by his inability to come completely forward because it has to be either a lack of trust or no moral defense for his secret. By failing to tell her, he's alienating the most important person in his life and ironically undermining the whole purpose of the venture. Skyler is worried about the baby she's going to have to raise in her post-Walt world. Walt's secret is pushing her towards comfort and compassion where she can find it.

In the long run, I believe Walt's illness will go into remission, Skyler and Walt will rekindle their love, Jesse will kick the habit and start a life with his new love. Hank will cover for Walt when the truth is finally revealed. Show will end with them fishing together on a lake, best of friends, wiser and retired.

In the interim, we're in for a wild and hilarious ride....with a few of life's lessons added in along the way.

Kudos. Any awards are well deserved.

Unknown said...

Super super super late in commenting. Just trying to get caught up quickly for this upcoming season 3. Definitely hooked. Alan, love the Wire references. And this series would not be a series if Walt just rented one season of Wire on Netflix or something.

Hopefully I didn't miss someone bringing this up, but kinda confused how Walt's distraction of Hanks car also distracted the other 2 surveillance trucks from opposite sides monitoring the scene. Guess a TV show moment. Doubt anyone will read this and respond, but just thought I'd put it out there.