When the credits rolled on last night’s episode of Better Call Saul no one would have been faulted in thinking that Gus Fring was the biggest take away of the episode. Hell, this is the most ruthless/scariest we’ve seen Gus since he put a box cutter in his hand or drank poisoned alcohol. This was Gus at a whole different level. For a character who very rarely gets his hands dirty, Gus not only puts Nacho on notice but the audience as well as he deftly tells us we have no idea just how vicious he can be. That’s the beauty of Better Call Saul, our ability to see these characters before Breaking Bad. In some cases in the height of their powers. The Gus we know has been in power for a long time and we’re given the impression that through hard work and steady calculation Gus rose through the ranks of the meth empire, and that’s only half the truth. The other half is Gus is a monster who is willing to do anything to anyone who jeopardizes his vision. A vision that is centered on revenge. A revenge he wants so badly that he’s willing to pay for top-notch medical treatment for the man he hates most in the world. That’s a special kind of dedication that Giancarlo Esposito makes so devilishly delicious.
There lies the beauty of season four’s second episode, “Breathe”, this isn’t just an episode used to highlight the strength and power of Gus Fring. No. This is an episode used to highlight the importance of character within this universe. Better Call Saul uses the prequel format to the best possible advantage. Instead of cashing in on Breaking Bad, Saul instead expands and adds new layers of depth. How many of you have gone back and re-watched Breaking Bad and walked away with a different connection to Saul or Mike? I dare you to watch Saul dig around for a burner phone and not mourn the loss of Jimmy McGill. I dare you to watch Mike clean up messes and not see him tearfully confessing to being responsible for the death of his son. Better Call Saul is a success because it’s an excellent show that makes predecessor even more amazing. That’s no easy task.
Last night each of our main characters were given moments to shine. “Breathe” is filled with terrific performances from actors who truly understand and appreciate the characters they portray. Every performance is calculated and measured allowing the audience to be swept away by the characters in the moment.
It all starts with Bob Odenkirk as he takes an ambitious Jimmy on a job interviewing tour. We’re given an opportunity to see a Jimmy who needs a win. Not just to get over the death of his brother but to also prove to himself that he can move on. That he’s worth something. Odenkirk gives us a humbled and vulnerable Jimmy McGill who is clearly doing everything in his power to get a job. A legitimate determination and drive gives us a Jimmy who fights for what he wants, only to pull a complete one-eighty. Not having Chuck around anymore leads Jimmy to police his own actions, and after delivering an impassioned speech to win a job selling printers he quickly burns the bridge by mocking his new employers. By pointing out that they have no idea who he or what he is and that they’re both fools. This is Jimmy at his lowest, seeing his strengths and knowing his weaknesses and scorching those who don’t give the effort to understand or appreciate these attributes. With Chuck dead, Jimmy now has to play two roles. The one that believes he’s good enough and the role that reminds him that he’s nothing but a dirtbag. It’s tragic and delivered so carefully and swiftly by Odenkirk who just flourishes in these roles.
“Breathe” was one of those episodes that continuously upped the ante when it came to character moments. Odenkirk set the bar high early with Jimmy’s job interview, and Jonathan Banks delivered the levity, for the second episode in a row, when it came to Mike. It’s such a small moment, highlighted by the fact that his actions make Lydia all squirmy, but it’s classic Mike. A man who may have taken some off the top as a police officer but never comprised his work ethic. It would be so easy for him to sit home and collect these massive checks until Gus needs him, but that’s not Mike. If he has a job, he’s going to do a job and I loved how he was unwilling to budge when explaining to Lydia he was going to hit every factory and find where their security was lacking. Banks is so effortless in his performance that it’s hard not to believe that he’s not Mike.
With each passing moment, the bar gets raised higher and higher, and I can see how people would believe that Gus is the ultimate payoff of this episode. The glass ceiling so to speak, but I’m here to politely disagree. “Breathe” belongs to Kim Wexler and more importantly Rhea Seehorn who gave her best performance to date. I’ve often said that Kim Wexler will be the shows biggest casualty and that’s only possible because of how amazingly Rhea Seehorn portrays her. Having been ignored by the Emmys for three seasons, Seehorn puts the Academy on notice last night as she stands up for Jimmy in a way we haven’t seen before. The fire and anger that comes pouring out of Kim is years of build up at not only how Jimmy has been treated by Howard and Chuck, but herself. Feeding on a past where she was pushed aside and taken advantage of, Kim Wexler spits hot fire. Kim hits Howard where it hurts and each blow is brilliantly punctuated. Patrick Fabian also delivers here as this cocky sure fire lawyer suddenly loses his spine as he’s shredded by the often quiet and complacent Kim Wexler. Just a fantastic scene all around.
Yes “Breathe” is a title that plays on the ending events, like so many Breaking Bad episodes before it, but it’s more than just alluding to the ending. “Breathe” is a title geared towards the audience as well. After each commercial break, after each character moment, I found myself needing to collect myself more and more. “Breathe”, much like the Breaking Bad universe as a whole, is a master class of character exploration and growth and quietly one of the shows best.
What did you think Geeklings? What were your biggest takeaways from this week’s Better Call Saul? Were you shocked to see Gus get so involved? What do you think Jimmy’s end game is here? Are we seeing an edgier side to Kim? Would you want a spinoff show where Mike goes from factory to factory? Sound off in the comments. If you’d like to talk more Saul with yours truly then you can find me on the Twitter @iamgeek32. I’ll see everyone next week with a brand new preview column, here’s hoping the rest of your week is all good man.
Images from AMC