The Better Call Saul countdown is on: 10 days left until the season 2 premiere!
It’s been ten months since the season one finale of Better Call Saul aired and I’ve felt dead inside every Monday night since. Fandom helped get me through the worst of the withdrawal symptoms but I had a fever and the only prescription was season two. But the moment is nigh: Better Call Saul is returning to AMC on February 15. My Monday nights will be whole again. To celebrate, I’m going to be recapping season one, starting at the beginning.
Episode 1×01: “Uno” (written by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould; directed by Vince Gilligan)
If you’re anything like me (aka a huge Breaking Bad nerd) you were cautiously optimistic about the idea of a Saul Goodman spin-off show. Historically, spin-offs of popular shows haven’t been the greatest (remember Joey?) but since I trust Vince Gilligan implicitly, I told myself all would be well. Of course, I wasn’t sure exactly what the show was going to be. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Is it an hour a week of Bob Odenkirk doing in-character sketches as Saul? (I would totally watch that, by the way.) I tuned in to the series premiere having no idea what to expect. But with Gilligan and Gould at the helm, I should have known to expect the unexpected because that is exactly what I got.
“Uno” starts with a cold open, entirely in black and white. There’s a montage of activity at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska (and a collective freakout by the Breaking Bad nerds who remember Saul’s prediction in “Granite State”). A song plays—“address unknown, not even a trace of you…”—and soon we see a familiar face. The camera pans up and we see the Cinnabon manager. His nametag says “Gene” and his hair is a lot thinner, but behind the glasses and the walrus mustache it is unmistakably Saul Goodman. Or rather, it’s Jimmy McGill.
[For the sake of clarity, I’m going to refer to this character as Gene when discussing events that happen post-BrBa, Saul when discussing events in the BrBa timeline, and Jimmy for the BCS era (pre-Saul). Now, back to everyone’s favorite Cinnabon manager.]
Gene is going through the motions at work, looking relatively miserable but keeping it professional, when he notices a man in the corner. The stranger appears to be looking straight at him, sizing him up, and we see Gene start to panic. He thinks the jig is up, that this guy has recognized him as Saul Goodman, and as the strange man walks toward him Gene is terrified. But the man keeps walking and Gene realizes that the man wasn’t looking at him. Gene is shaken up, but there’s a hint of disappointment in the way he reacts to the situation—almost like he would welcome being recognized.
The next scene in the teaser (still black and white, still no dialogue) brings us to Gene’s condo. He fixes himself a sloppy Rusty Nail and sits in his recliner to watch TV. Nothing is striking his fancy, though, and he starts acting shady: looking out the window, closing the blinds, digging a shoebox out from a hidden compartment in the back of his closet. He opens it up and we see that it’s a memory box—some old photos, a Panamanian passport, a Band-aid box with who knows what inside. But Gene is looking for something in particular: a VHS tape. (Remember those?)
When he pops the tape in and returns to his seat we hear his voice for the first time, but it’s not Gene speaking; it’s coming from the television. The camera stays on Gene the whole time but we know exactly what he’s watching: a reel of Saul’s late night TV commercials. Gene looks like he’s holding back tears, but there’s this one moment while he’s watching himself where he almost smiles. And this is when I knew that Better Call Saul was going to be something special. The way Bob Odenkirk performs Gene’s reaction was incredibly nuanced— miles away from the darkly comic relief that Saul provided in Breaking Bad. Any doubt I had that Odenkirk could pull off heavy drama went out the window right quick. (I’m sorry I doubted you, Bob. Please forgive me.)
As the camera zooms in on Gene we can see the reflection of the TV in his glasses—the only pop of color in the entire teaser. The scene ends abruptly, and a short (and incredibly catchy) theme song plays over a shot of the blow-up Lady Liberty that graced the roof of Saul’s strip mall office.
And so it begins.
We’re in full color now, in the present-day of the Better Call Saul universe (circa 2002), and we’re in an Albuquerque courtroom where everyone is waiting for a trial to begin. They are waiting on someone, and that someone is Jimmy McGill. We first meet Jimmy in the courthouse men’s room, where he’s practicing his opening statement in front of an audience of urinals. He’s wearing a drab suit, without a hint of Saul’s flair for the fashionably dramatic. After the bailiff comes in to get him, Jimmy bursts through the courtroom doors and launches into his opening statement. We can hear that trademark Goodman gusto as he presents his defense of the three teenaged boys on trial. We don’t know exactly what they’ve done, but according to Jimmy they are just a bunch of “knuckleheads” who “did a dumb thing.” He gives it his all and when he is finished, it’s the prosecution’s turn. The prosecutor doesn’t say a word; he just wheels out an old TV cart and plays a video for the jury.
It would appear that the “dumb thing” these boys did was to go to a funeral home, chop the head off of a corpse, and then have sex with it. The jury looks horrified, because in reality that would be a heinous crime and having to watch it would be even worse, but this is a TV show and I’m not ashamed to say I lol’d at this scene. It’s just so perfectly twisted and depraved. Not to mention that the way Jimmy so earnestly defends these three teenage necrophiliacs shows that he’s actually a pretty good lawyer. The case is unwinnable, of course, but Jimmy gives it his best anyway.
And then he collects his $700 check and we see his frustration with how little public defender work pays. Of course, it’s his own fault for trying the three boys together; he could have made $2,100 off separate trials, and knowing he screwed the pooch on that makes him even more annoyed. He takes his frustrations out on the apathetic clerk and storms out, pledging that he’ll never do any PD work for them again. She just looks at him like she literally could not care less and says, “You have yourself a nice day.”
Out in the parking lot, Jimmy walks toward a white Cadillac—reminiscent of Saul’s LWYRUP mobile—but it doesn’t belong to him. No, Jimmy’s car is the beat up yellow Suzuki Esteem with the one red door. He answers his cell phone with a poor man’s Mrs. Doubtfire accent and sets up a meeting with someone named Mrs. Kettleman. Jimmy’s “receptionist” tells Mrs. Kettleman that his office is being painted and asks to meet at Loyola’s Café (a location Breaking Bad nerds will recognize as the place where Mike and Jesse eat in “Cornered”).
Jimmy pulls up to the parking booth and hands his ticket to the attendant. Although we don’t see his face, the voice that says “three dollars” can only belong to one man: Mike Ehrmantraut, Saul’s fixer and right-hand man to drug kingpin Gustavo Fring.
It’s clear that Jimmy and Mike don’t know each other yet, and a fantastic scene between the two unfolds in which Jimmy does not have the requisite stickers and Mike demands that he either pay up or go back inside and get properly validated. Mike’s monotone, dry sarcasm is lethal (and, oh, how I missed it) and Jimmy gets increasingly frustrated with this hard-ass standing in between him and a potential client. Mike reacts as a Breaking Bad fan might expect: with controlled contempt. He is completely unfazed by Jimmy’s dramatics. He just wants three dollars or the damn sticker.
At Loyola’s we meet Craig and Betsy Kettleman. Jimmy is desperately trying to get the Kettlemans to hire him as their defense attorney. Craig is the treasurer of Bernalillo County, where $1.6 million has gone missing. Jimmy knows Craig is about to be facing a criminal investigation and he wants the Kettlecase bad. He knows it’ll be high-profile and get his name out there, and he tries his best to convince Craig and Betsy that they really do need a lawyer. They resist because they think it will make them look guilty and they deny any wrongdoing, claiming the whole thing is an “accounting discrepancy.”
Betsy is especially insistent on her husband’s innocence (in a the-lady-doth-protest-too-much sort of way). It’s clear that Betsy runs the show in this relationship, and there’s one moment in particular which shows that Betsy is the captain of the Kettleship: Jimmy is watching Craig, pen in hand, about sign the letter of engagement, and Jimmy can practically taste victory, but Betsy stops Craig with just a touch of her hand. She tells Jimmy they want to sleep on it, but it’s obvious that she is not impressed with him (or the fact that he gives them a James M. McGill matchbook in lieu of a business card).
But Jimmy McGill is nothing if not persistent. While driving home from the meeting, he orders flowers “that look expensive but aren’t” to be delivered to the Kettlemans with a note signed “best wishes from your stickler for justice.” But before he can complete the transaction, a skateboarder comes out of nowhere and he plows right into him. Jimmy gets out of the car and sees his victim, Cal Lindholm, writhing in pain on the ground. The victim’s twin brother, Lars, starts yelling at Jimmy and he panics—that is, until the twins try to hit him up for five hundred bucks. Jimmy McGill knows a scam when he sees one, and when he calls the twins on their BS they run off, leaving Jimmy’s Esteem in even worse shape than it already was.
And now for my favorite fact about Jimmy McGill: he lives and works in the back room of a nail salon. There is a sad little sign taped to the door, with “James M. McGill, Esq. A Law Corporation” printed on that old-style paper with the tear-off edges. (And as I type this I can hear the dot matrix printer sound in my head.) Jimmy’s “office,” if one can even call it that, is essentially a storage closet (complete with the salon’s hot water heater in the corner). He’s managed to cram a desk, some duct-tape-patched chairs, and a pullout couch into the small space but it’s hardly functional. Suffice it to say, it’s clear why he chose to meet with the Kettlemans at Loyola’s.
Jimmy checks his answering machine for messages (and of course he has none) and goes through a stack of overdue bills until he gets to a blue envelope. Inside is a letter from the law office of Hamlin Hamlin & McGill and a check for $26,000. Jimmy tears up the check, and we’re left with a lot of questions: who is the McGill in HHM? And why would Jimmy, who is so obviously strapped for cash, tear up a big, fat check?
We start to get some answers when Jimmy goes to HHM. He enters the lobby and greets everyone by name. They seem to know him too, and it’s clear that Jimmy has some sort of relationship with this prestigious law firm. He asks Brenda the receptionist where “Lord Vader” is and he refuses to wait for him in the lobby. Instead, he bursts into the HHM conference room and does his best impression of Ned Beatty’s classic speech in Network. At the head of the conference table sits “Lord Vader” himself: the impeccably dressed Howard Hamlin, who looks like the lovechild of Clarence Darrow and a Ken doll. Hamlin is unamused (but not at all surprised) by Jimmy’s grand entrance. Jimmy proceeds to dump the pieces of the torn-up check on the conference room table while everyone stares at him.
We learn that the “McGill” in Hamlin Hamlin & McGill is Jimmy’s brother, Chuck. The check was meant for him but made out to Jimmy because Chuck is, for reasons not yet known, unable to care for himself. Over the course of Jimmy’s conversation with Howard, we learn that Chuck has not been able to work for over a year. Jimmy wants Hamlin and the other partners to cash Chuck out of the business (which would mean a $17 million hit for HHM) but Hamlin doesn’t believe that Jimmy is actually expressing Chuck’s wishes. Jimmy has an obvious contempt for Hamlin, sarcastically telling him how “down-to-earth and relatable” he would seem to a jury if the matter went to court. There is no resolution, and Jimmy leaves with another Network-inspired flourish, yelling:
Just as Jimmy is about to leave the building, he sees Hamlin go downstairs to greet some clients. He recognizes their voices before he sees them: Craig and Betsy Kettleman. And that’s when Jimmy loses it. He manages to get down to the parking garage before he explodes, kicking the crap out of a trashcan as the camera pans out to show the blonde woman who was sitting next to Hamlin in the conference room. She’s leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, completely unfazed by Jimmy’s tantrum.
When Jimmy is done flipping out, he walks over to the woman and plucks her cigarette from her mouth. He takes a drag before putting it back where he found it. There is an unspoken intimacy between these two people that is purposefully not explored here (at this point, we don’t even know this woman’s name), but it is clear that they know each other well. Only two lines are spoken—Jimmy asks for help, she says she can’t—and that’s that. The woman returns to work, but not before cleaning up the mess Jimmy made with the trashcan.
Now it’s nighttime, and Jimmy drives up to a house and retrieves the mail from the mailbox. He then proceeds to put his key fob, watch, and cell phone in the box and touches some sort of makeshift device outside before entering. A voice yells, “Did you ground yourself?” as Jimmy stumbles around in the darkness. He lights a lantern and we see that the electrical box on the wall has been completely destroyed, wires hanging every which way. There is zero electricity in the house; the food is kept in in a cooler, which Jimmy likens to a “trichinosis stew.” He refills it with ice and fresh groceries (i.e. more bacon) and then he moves toward the sound of a manual typewriter.
This is Chuck’s house, and over the course of the conversation between the brothers we learn that the elder McGill has some sort of illness that he believes is related to electromagnetism. It is unclear whether Chuck’s condition is physical or mental, but Chuck is very insistent that it is a disease and he’s going to beat it and go back to work at HHM. Jimmy does not seem convinced.
Jimmy tries to persuade Chuck to cash out of the firm, saying that he’s broke and can’t keep carrying the both of them on public defender money. Instead of being grateful to Jimmy for helping him, Chuck gives him a condescending lecture about how PD work is a cornerstone of the legal system, and how all the hard work will pay off in the end. Chuck tries to convince Jimmy that helping people in need is more important than how much he’s making, saying, “Money is beside the point.” Jimmy isn’t buying it, though, and he snaps back, “Money IS the point.”
Then Jimmy learns that, after their earlier meeting, Hamlin visited Chuck at home and brought him the first of his weekly stipend checks. Jimmy is pissed that Hamlin went around him, but he’s also astounded that Howard actually indulged all of Chuck’s entry requirements. “He grounded himself?” Jimmy asks, incredulous. Chuck replies, “He understands the situation.” Chuck tells Jimmy that Hamlin is “concerned” about his matchbooks—that it might cause “confusion” if he uses the name James M. McGill for his law practice—and Jimmy finally snaps. He lost the Kettlemans to Hamlin; he lost the battle over Chuck’s third of the company; but no way in hell is he going to allow Howard Hamlin to dictate whether he practices law using his own name.
Chuck remains neutral, telling Jimmy that it’s a “professional courtesy,” but it’s too much for Jimmy to take. He asks Chuck, “Whose side are you on?” and Chuck responds, “there are no sides.” But Jimmy obviously thinks that there should be, and that his brother should be solidly on his team. It’s clear that this is not the case, and Jimmy leaves Chuck’s in a tizzy. Sitting in his car he stares at his matchbook and says, “You wanna dance, Howard? Let’s dance.” We don’t know what Jimmy is planning, but there’s no way he’s letting it go.
At the local skate park, Jimmy seeks out the Lindholm twins to enlist their help pulling a scam on Betsy Kettleman. He tells them about his days as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” a con man in Cicero, Illinois who used to make money faking slip-and-fall accidents during icy Chicago winters. This is how Jimmy knew the twins were trying to pull one over on him with the car stunt, and now he wants to teach them how to really collect. “You get to learn from the best,” he says.
Jimmy wants to steal the Kettlemans from HHM and he’s decided that he’s going to use the twins to do it. He takes them to the Kettlehouse and tells them to study the Kettlemobile (make: Mercury Sable wagon; color: medium sandalwood; license plate: starts with a 4), then he takes them to the corner where they’ll be able to catch Betsy on her way to pick up the Kettlekids from school. Jimmy details the plan and tells the twins that, when all is said and done, they will clear two grand. Of course, they’ll have to wait to get paid, because everything is contingent on Betsy being so grateful to Jimmy for “saving her” that she decides to drop HHM. But Jimmy is in the zone, and he’s confident that his plan will work.
Just outside the Kettlemans’ cul-de-sac, Jimmy sits in his car practicing what he is going to say to Betsy when the whole thing goes down. He calls the twins with a two-minute warning when she pulls out of the driveway. Lars is in position and when he sees a brown station wagon approaching, he gives Cal the signal. They run the scam perfectly, but no one gets out of the car.
Then the car peels out and the twins take off after it. They ride their boards Marty McFly-style, hanging on the back of a pickup truck, and call Jimmy on the way. They give him the run-down and Jimmy tries to roll with it, telling them that they “fell into the honeypot” because a hit-and-run is a felony charge and that means more money. Then the twins decide they don’t need Jimmy anymore and they hang up, but not before telling Jimmy that the car was headed toward the neighborhood of Holiday Park.
Lars and Cal follow the car to a house, and when it pulls into the driveway a woman gets out who is most definitely not Betsy Kettleman. It’s just a little old lady who looks scared and confused. She speaks only in Spanish, so the twins start yelling at her to “make with the dinero” and she agrees to let them in. We hear her call out for “Mijo” on her way inside with the twins.
Jimmy’s Esteem comes shooting past the house and then backs up—he sees the two skateboards on the lawn and the brown station wagon with the broken windshield and he knows this is the place. Jimmy knocks on the door but there’s no answer. He tries to peek in the window but he can’t see anything so he returns to the door, shouting, “Open up! Officer of the court! Open up in the name of the law!” When the door opens all we see is a gun pointed straight at Jimmy’s forehead. An arm pulls him into the house, and after a beat a man pokes his head out to check for witnesses. And OMG is that Tuco?!?
It is. It’s Tuco Salamanca, the batshit crazy, meth-addled drug dealer from the early days of Breaking Bad. The end credits roll and millions of fans rejoice that Tuco is back and ready to cause some serious trouble.
To say I was hooked after watching “Uno” would be an understatement. I fell hard for poor, down-on-his-luck Jimmy. I was rooting for him, even though the first six minutes of the series showed me exactly where he ends up. But that’s what makes Better Call Saul great: the fact that, even though we know Saul Goodman from the Breaking Bad days, we are just now learning who he really is and where he came from. We don’t yet know to what extent Saul was an act. After all, we only ever saw Saul in his capacity as Walt and Jesse’s lawyer. But what we learn about Jimmy over the course of “Uno” makes it that much more painful to remember how the episode began: with sad, old Cinnabon Gene, hiding in plain sight and watching his glory days play out on an old VHS tape.