Better Call Saul series premiere: take two. “Mijo” is an episode that is leaps and bounds better than the series debut episode the night before it. Tension levels go off the charts, expert direction is present all the way through, and the main character is constantly put in harrowing situations. This is the Albuquerque that fans deserve.
Opening an episode with a knife chopping what could either be tomatoes or body parts is a great way to start, and such a Breaking Bad thing to do. While his appearance still feels like a forced attempt to bring out fan nostalgia, Tuco’s role in “Mijo” ends up being a welcome one. We see him as being the insane killer he is right up until his ultimate fate at the hands of Walter White, but there’s now a sense of reserved calm to him that isn’t there in the future. He hasn’t experienced quite the success (and therefore paranoia) that he has a decade later. Because of this, the fast-talking Jimmy McGill is able to talk his way out of several very bad situations that future Tuco wouldn’t have given a second thought to.
One of my main problems with Sunday night’s premiere was how the world seemed to work around McGill instead of the other way around. This second episode solves that problem quickly, and it’s clear this is not a world run by a sleazy lawyer that runs his business out of the back of a nail salon – it’s run by even larger scumbags. Several times throughout the episode things will slightly pick up for our intrepid lawyer (especially during that great montage at the end), but overall he’s shown as a man down on his luck in a much more natural way than in the debut episode. McGill’s misfortunes are portrayed through his actions with significant characters in the story, not cheeky slow pans to his clunker of a car or forced interactions with familiar faces.
In general, the character of James McGill – and Saul Goodman for that matter – works so much better when he’s put in situations that he shouldn’t be able to win. The more desperate McGill/Goodman gets, the more his goofyness can be juxtaposed and become more effective. Just seeing him be silly for the sake of being funny, like he was in the premiere, doesn’t really cut it. The humor of a character such as McGill is supposed to come out through his desperation, and it’s a relief to see that Better Call Saul seems to understand that after all.
It also helps that Bob Odenkirk plays his role flawlessly yet again. He manages to keep up the lawyer facade while holding back tears in his eyes while pleading for his life in such a fantastic way. The desperation in McGill’s tone and rapid-fire pleas for his life has a shaky undertone of fear to it, but still enough confidence to show that he has a plan in mind – even if he’s never sure if it’s actually going to work out.
Another of the episode’s great performances comes from a newcomer to the city of Albuquerque. Michael Mando as Tuco’s more level-headed, but still completely terrifying, business associate Nacho is the perfect equalizer and go-between for the characters. If McGill was able to talk Tuco down from a killing spree on his own, it would come across as the story writing itself around him again, but the addition of Nacho blends it all seamlessly together. Nacho is the type of friend that can talk Tuco down (and the type of friend that will probably be killed later), and he also brings a new level of unpredictability. Being that Breaking Bad fans have seen what Tuco is capable of and there’s already no reason to trust anything he does, it kills a lot of the suspense with his actions. Luckily, Nacho fills that void perfectly. Whether he’s holding a wrench or a pen, it’s impossible to get a read on if he wants to negotiate or murder McGill – which is just what Better Call Saul needs.
With that said, lets not lie to ourselves, we all know that Nacho is going to die sooner or later. Tuco’s mental instability is going to come back in force eventually, and Nacho is just too darn smooth to survive his next big explosion. But until that happens, there’s no reason not to enjoy a great character.
Unlike “Uno” on Sunday night, “Mijo” doesn’t try and shy away from its Breaking Bad roots in its approach to story-telling. There’s a pleasant lack of general dicking around, and it’s replaced with a consistent tension so tight that it could be cut with a butter knife. Even the opening scene, where we as an audience already know that Tuco is a maniac, retained a lot of that tension. Deep down I know that he’s going to be laying the pain on the two con artists, but the act of waiting for it is intense enough that it makes up for the lack of mystery. And calling Tuco’s grandmother a “biznatch?” Not the best move.
McGill still manages to be funny enough and set himself apart from Walter White as a main character, but it’s not in the forefront. The forefront, as it should be, is the vibrant city and other characters around him.
Nacho is a great new addition, but the other new addition to Better Call Saul, McGill’s brother Chuck, still doesn’t have a clear place in the show. Amid the other great scenes and plot progression, everything between James and Chuck feels like a slow crawl and an unnecessary detour. Surely something good will come of his existence, but like Sunday’s episode in general, it just isn’t hitting the mark yet. Sound design and the shot selection was phenomenal during the scene, however. That damn space blanket and its noises create a tension all its own.
As long as we’re talking about downsides to an otherwise great episode, two montages in one hour is a little much to handle, even when they’re both done with the signature Breaking Bad style. The second one, showing Jimmy’s every day life as a lawyer progressing to fill in the time between the first and second encounters with Nacho, was perfect and fit well. James and his nameless date at the bar montaging through drinks and his own guilt, however, feels out of place and doesn’t transition very well to the next scene where he stumbles into Chuck’s house drunk off his feet.
I was definitely one of the few that didn’t like the premiere episode all that much on Sunday, but count me on board with Better Call Saul after “Mijo.” It’s showtime, TV fans.
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