When In Doubt: Better Call Saul And The Man With A Gun

When a show starts to drag, and a plot outlives its welcome, there's one surefire method to blow away the cobwebs.

better call saul bob odenkirk tony dalton

Everyone knows the painfully awkward moment of a formerly lively narrative stalling, stuttering, and if they’re not careful getting themselves completely becalmed. And nobody knows this better than the creators themselves, so Raymond Chandler, king of the pulp noir, came up with the sage maxim ‘when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand’ to shake things up in just such an occasion.

When Better Call Saul finally introduced Lalo near the end of the last season, it was very much in the spirit Chandler intended. He was being parachuted in to break up the doldrums of not one but two of the Albuquerque underworld subplots. What’s more, he didn’t even need to come in with a gun in his hand, since we’d already established him to be important, knowing his name from a couple of throwaway sentences in Breaking Bad (“Lalo didn’t send you? No Lalo?“) which had subsequently become the basis for huge parts of Better Call Saul.

The team behind Better Call Saul have always been very good at spinning out little details from Breaking Bad into meatier plot points. Even if it’s largely the same people, they can’t have known that, for instance, when they had Saul plead “it wasn’t me, it was Ignacio!” all those years ago, we would ever actually meet Ignacio, much less end up going through the whole torrid tale of his split loyalties and his estranged father. And due credit to Michael ‘Vaas out of Far Cry 3’ Mando for putting a convincingly troubled face to the name, but still, he’s not the one who actually writes the thing.

Unfortunately, this can cut both ways. A significant part of the fourth season of Better Call Saul was devoted to the construction (or, shall we say, backstory) of the underground super-lab we saw in Breaking Bad. For all that it was naked fan-service, it wasn’t a badly done storyline, and it gave Mike and Gus something to do, but that’s just it – this was the plot servicing the characters, rather than the other way around, keeping those plates spinning until a more interesting development came along.

It was this meandering plotline that had Lalo fired into it to stir things up. So what a shame it was when Lalo also found himself having to expand on a Breaking Bad detail beyond the point any reasonable person would take an interest. Hadn’t the fanbase always wanted to know where Hector Salamanca’s bell came from? No, of course not, what a ridiculous idea, who would wonder about that – but now they do. And again, it wasn’t even badly done, Lalo had a nice little monologue and it was a nice bit of world-building, just one that took precedence over anything actually happening.

Better Call Saul

Lalo, as seemingly the only member of the Salamanca family not hobbled by a series of glaring, crippling neuroses, mainly serves as an evil and charismatic counterweight to fan favourites Mike and Gus – who, if left to their own devices, are too competent to not end up destroying the cartel years ahead of schedule. But of course, Better Call Saul’s initial decision to bring back fan favourites other than Saul himself was more-or-less the same as having men with guns burst in through the door to perk things up. This was actually, literally, how Tuco reintroduced himself in the first episode.

Sans the return to Albuquerque’s seamy underworld, we would have been left with a show entirely about a struggling lawyer who resents his more successful older brother and eventually lapses into Roy Cohn-style crookery. This remains, of course, a main plot strand, if not the main plot strand of the show, but the fact is the stakes simply aren’t as high. For the bulk of it thus far, the biggest, worst-case-scenario risk Saul has faced is being disbarred – a storm he managed to weather handily over the fourth season.

So the injection of a bit of life-and-death stuff was quite welcome, but one can’t escape the feeling that with Mike and Nacho’s storylines picking up the slack in that department, Saul’s became distinctly flabby in turn. Having ended season one pledging never to leave money sitting on the table again, seemingly well on his way to becoming the shyster everyone remembered from the Breaking Bad days and had tuned in again to see, season two saw him immediately volte-face and tread water in the distinctly unsexy realm of elder law. Twelve Angry Men this was not.

What it was, however, was the show visibly overreaching as it transformed the pitiable Jimmy McGill into the lovably awful Saul Goodman a little too quickly, then realising it had done so and tripping over its own feet as it corrected course. As a prequel, it has a defined endpoint, we know exactly where Jimmy/Saul is heading – even more so than with Breaking Bad, which was always very clearly about, as creator Vince Gilligan put it, Mr. Chips turning into Scarface. Get there too soon, and there’s no show left.

Better Call Saul

Saul’s storyline does have the advantage of Kim Wexler, his partner in love (if never quite in law), a much better-sketched female lead than Breaking Bad’s mishandled Skyler, and one whose ambiguous future clawed back a bit of suspense in a very white-collar setting. However, it’s also studded throughout with, yes, more Breaking Bad callbacks – some of which appear to be the writers shamefacedly trying to tippex out their own old failings.

Remember that clumsy conversation where they establish that New Mexico calls it the Motor Vehicle Division rather than the more standard Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, but Saul insists on using the common parlance, damn it? That was entirely to make a throwaway line from Breaking Bad, which few people outside New Mexico would ever have noticed anything wrong with, fit the facts. To err is human, but to then try and paper over the cracks in the prequel is downright cheap.

I mentioned above that Mike and Nacho serve to artificially graft a bit of blood and thunder onto a largely disconnected legal plotline – and they do, but they suffer from similar pacing problems. Like Saul, we already know where Mike will ultimately end up, so there’s going to be a bit of killing time in there. But Nacho, who never appeared in Breaking Bad, isn’t bound in the same way, so it’s flatly amazing it took quite so long to get his character to this point. He fears that being in the cartel might endanger his father, he’s Gus’s mole in the cartel, and – that’s as far as we’ve got with him in five years. Yes, it’s meant to be a slow burn, but you could be forgiven for thinking that the cartel sent in a jolly, energetic figure like Lalo because they too found Nacho’s story a bit plodding.

In the current fifth season, Saul’s face has come to fit the mask, and he’s going full sleazeball lawyer, the brakes seem to finally be coming off, so it’s odd that Lalo has come along more-or-less alongside the long-awaited rise of the Saul Goodman we remember. The show should no longer really need a surprise gunman wandering up to kick the door in. There was a distinct time when that was the natural thing to do, and they missed the opportunity – and the thought we could have had Lalo bouncing around, holding Nacho’s feet to the fire and screwing with Gus, to carry us through those long, long sequences of Jimmy bored at the phone store leaves a distinctly sour taste.

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