Better Call Saul is a garrulous show populated with chit-chatty characters — lip-servicing lawyers who deal in small talk the way cowboys deal in lead. It also has the more taciturn Mike, who deals in actual lead. Like cowboys and their bullets, these lawyers use their gift of gab to profit, to pilfer from friends and competitors. Jimmy has been, so far, gabber par excellence, the man who prosecuted Liberty Valance (or would he defend Liberty Valance?). Jimmy’s an artist, spinning pseudo-truths and not-quite-lies into quilted performances — has any character conjured up such luscious fictions as Jimmy when he explained the squat cobbler? But in “Fifi,” maybe the best episode of the show to date (or at least the best since last week’s), Chuck wrests the title from his younger brother. Slippin’ Chuck is as conniving as Slippin’ Jimmy. He might even enjoy the con game more.
Mike, on the other hand, says far less than his loquacious lawyer. He spends most of this week’s episode sitting in solitude, in his car in the dark, watching Hector and his cronies go about their quotidian criminal endeavors as Massive Attack-esque music percolates in the background. He cogitates. As with several of this season’s best episodes, Mike is again relegated to a small role, but, again, the episode ends with him, alone, planning, working.
Lest we forget amidst all this talk of talking that Better Call Saul is the spawn of Breaking Bad, this week’s episode wastes no time reminding us that we’re watching one of the most visually voluptuous shows on TV. With its ravishing use of color to paint recurring metaphors (yellow, green, and purple have become the show’s primary colors) and articulate, carefully enunciated camera angles and focus, Saul says as much with pictorial poetry as it does with words. “Fifi,” directed by Larysa Kondracki (she helmed last season’s excellent “Bingo” and the not-very-good movie The Whistleblower and has also worked on The Americans, the best drama on TV), opens with an adroitly un-flashy long take. It begins with the green/yellow back of a truck, rises up, and drifts over the US-Mexico border check-in. Then it dips back down as a truck passes beneath and follows a police car cruising behind the truck, roving around as Border Patrol inspects incoming vehicles; they’re using long, green-tinged mirrors to look under the trucks. Finally, the camera settles back on the driver, a man whose salt-n-pepper beard suggests experience.
If Better Call Saul was a lesser show, this multi-minute Steadicam shot might not have a payoff, the unmitigated difficulty of such a setup being the only masturbatory reason for the shot’s existence (à la True Detective), or its payoff might be some expected unexpected blast of violence. Instead, we see the truck driver rip open a package, remove a Popsicle, and stick it in his mouth, as much a throwback to gunslingers putting long strands of straw in their mouth as it is a wryly ironic letdown. The post-payoff kicker doesn’t come until the long take cuts and we see the gray-bearded truck driver pull over on a long stretch of barren asphalt, the sun’s emanations spread across the sky. He gets out, moves a rock, and takes a gun out from a secret cache that’s surrounded by a dozen Popsicle sticks jutting out from the dirt.
It seems like every week, this show gets more confident, more daring.
NEXT: Howard wanted to leave…once
“Fifi” is relentlessly clever, and you might fear that it’ll choke on its own self-assuredness. But it doesn’t. Jimmy and Kim (who is really the star of this episode) are eating hot dogs and drinking tall boys at the Dog House (remember when Chuck asked Howard if Kim was “out of the dog house” a few weeks ago?). They talk about how they have to pinch pennies until they can wrangle some clients. Right now they’re banking on Mesa Verde, the bank that Kim nabbed for HHM; Kim wants — needs — to take it with her if she wants to start her own firm.
I’ve been harping on the show’s use of color for two months now, and “Fifi” makes me feel vindicated. When Kim goes into Howard’s office to tell him she’s leaving to start her own practice, Howard’s purple tie and pocket square make him look like he’s forever tethered to his office. Then there’s Kim’s purple dress. Purple, the color of royalty, of piety and penitence and vanity and the inside of blood oranges.
Better Call Saul keeps us off balance by constantly shifting our allegiances, as if tilting a warped mirror so what we see changes depending on our current position within the season’s narrative architecture. Chuck was a good guy last season, then the ostensible “villain” when Jimmy found out that Chuck was his Fredo, emasculating him at the office; Howard, the season 1 “villain,” started to seem like an alright guy before we found out he’s the one keeping Kim down. And Chuck actually has some pretty good reasons to disdain Jimmy’s chicanery, as I argued a couple weeks ago, so it’s hard to be harsh on him. Even Jimmy’s adolescent grifting has a complicated beginning.
Now we learn that Howard wanted to break away from HHM years ago, like Kim is doing — trying to do. But his dad didn’t want him to. In Better Call Saul, the ones you love are the ones who bring you down, like weights shackled to your ankles.
Kim sprints to her office to phone Paige, whose husband is her contact at Mesa Verde. They’re still on for lunch.
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Jimmy finds an old dental practice to convert into the shared offices for him and Kim. When Kim enters, we see her refracted by the ceiling, a nice visual metaphor for one’s office being a reflection (however inaccurate) of one’s self. The office has a mirrored layout, so Jimmy and Kim are, in theory, equals, but flipped. Surely this cannot last.
HHM can’t afford to lose Mesa Verde. Well, actually they can — they’re a major law firm, and the Sandpiper account that no one has mentioned so far in this episode is worth millions. Mesa Verde is, by comparison, small fish. But Howard wants to keep the client, and so does Chuck. Howard visits Chuck’s mausoleum, replete with rows of books, to tell him that Mesa Verde is going with Kim and Jimmy (“the man is Svengali,” Chuck eruditely quips). Chuck wants to go with Howard to meet with Mesa Verde. He dons a suit — not one lined with a space blanket, just a regular suit, so that “everything appears, for lack of a better sword, normal.” Howard’s reflection gleams in a mirror as Chuck delves into his closet, the shot juxtaposing the two men: One is “normal,” his suit trim, his health not afflicted by an imaginary disease; the other is an old man in a frumpy cardigan who thinks he’s allergic to electricity.
Chuck tells Mesa Verde that Kim is the future, the right choice for them. Chuck, like Jimmy, is a master of gab, paralyzing and poisoning his prey with periphrasis. He tells them she’s young, smart, energetic; he’s boring and old, reads banking law for fun. “When you reach your golden years,” he says, slowly reeling in the hook, “you tend to ramble on.” He pulls a Ronald Reagan, painting his adversary as young and inexperienced.
NEXT: Jimmy turns the tables again
But Jimmy turns the tables again. (The tables oscillate so often it’s more like the lazy Susan in Temple of Doom, spinning, spinning, poison and diamonds changing places over and over until someone gets speared with a flaming rod of shish kabob.) Jimmy’s on set for his newest commercial. He’s taken his nerdy two-person camera crew to a military base, with one of his geriatric former clients posing as a mute WWII vet so they can shoot in front of a rare plane — the photography in this scene is gorgeous, the subtle camera push-and-pull extrapolating the kind of visual lyricism for which Jimmy strives. Then he gets a phone call. It’s Chuck. All that time in the office has messed him up real good.
Jimmy rushes to Chuck’s home, where he finds a stack of paperwork. (Notice how he’s framed as being pinned under the gutter.) He slips off into that good night with the papers, going to a print office where he slices and pastes the papers, doctoring documents, sliding around numbers and letters. The bright green (green!) beams from the copiers illuminate the screen as Jimmy and the lights dissolve into each other. A scene of someone photocopying legal documents has no right to be this beautiful.
Mike, meanwhile, is doing a DIY project of his own, with assistance from his granddaughter. They drill holes into a garden hose — to help water the rhododendrons, he tells his daughter-in-law. When the ladies leave, Mike shoves the power drill into the hose, the scene aurally match-cutting to the faucet running. Mike, veiled in the luminous glow of an old black-and-white movie on the TV, is putting long nails into the hose. He says nothing. He looks serene.
This is an incredible episode, visually poetic, emotional tense, and no one dies. No one has to die — the stakes in Better Call Saul are far more modest than most other prime-time dramas, but for its characters, they’re monumental.