24th Feb2016

‘Better Call Saul 2×02: Cobbler’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Are you still morally flexible?”

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‘Cobbler’ follows a simple thread, observing the lives of the brothers McGill as they proceed absent one from the other. For Jimmy it means an end to the moral code he tried to follow to win Chuck’s favor, something he now knows he could never obtain. He’ll keep being a lawyer, but he’ll do it his way, and he won’t pass up another duffel full of unmarked bills. There’s a seed of something more interesting there, though. Jimmy’s slide into the deep end of criminal law isn’t all about Chuck. It’s clear that his brother’s presence affects him when the elder McGill drops by an HHM staff meeting on the Sandpiper case, but it’s equally clear that Jimmy has begun to move on. Chuck may have pushed him back toward Slippin’ Jimmy’s old tricks, but it’s Jimmy himself who’s kept going.

Chuck’s lot is, if equally self-inflicted, a little easier with which to sympathize. Sure he’s a dick who ran his brother ragged even as he actively kept him from success and who now glosses over his cruelty with a blustery, “Good for Jimmy!”, but spend a minute with him as he stares at a ticking watch or slaps himself around when he can’t play ‘Sicilienne’ on the piano. He’s a man trying to fill a hole he didn’t expect to find, and he’s too sick to do it alone. Note Chuck’s jacket, smart and well-cut, the very thing for an elder statesman, but open it up and you’ll find it lined with tinfoil. It’s the same symbol that repeats when Jimmy gets his company car, the awkward transference of something that just doesn’t fit into a shell suggesting propriety.

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‘Cobbler’ is a beautiful episode of television. The melancholy lighting and quiet focus of Chuck’s session at the piano, the stretched angles and delightfully unusual plucking soundtrack of the conference room scene, the classic Breaking Bad coffee cup holder shot; the list goes on. Hell, this is a show that makes Ed Begley Jr. playing guitar in an office into a thing of quiet loveliness. Mike’s trip to the upholsterer’s workshop finds visual adventure in the pulse and ratchet of sewing machines and the intersection of car and body, Mike’s car framing and dissecting his conversation with Nacho as it blocks bodies, provides a resting place for hands, and serves as a distraction for Nacho’s affable father.

Mike’s subplot, in which he deals with the infuriating Mr. Wormald’s obstinate idiocy, is a great showcase for the none-better Jonathan Banks, whose ability to appear done with somebody’s shit is unparalleled. It’s also a brilliant way to show Jimmy starting his career as, in his own words, a “criminal” lawyer. There’s nothing momentous about it. No huge neon sign proclaiming the arrival of Saul Goodman. Just three guys in a room, some cheap coffee, and a story about a man who recordings himself squishing his butt into pies while whining and crying. It’s a smart way to handle the character’s evolution, playing to the easy slide instead of the momentous break with old ways. The aftermath in which Kim’s amusement at Jimmy’s story transmutes into hesitation and then distaste when he reveals his shady methods feels wrigglingly uncomfortable, a small personal breakage constructed with intimate craftsmanship. You can see part of Jimmy die when she tells him how she feels about his stunt.

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What it isn’t is great for the character of Mr. Wormald. Vince Gilligan has a tendency to write priggish characters as somewhat unbelievable, and Wormald’s milquetoast idiocy feels a little beyond the pale even for a genuine dimwit. “I’m not here as a criminal,” he grouses to Mike when the tough takes him aside for a lecture outside the police station. “I’m here as a crime victim!” It’s a smart reflection of the way Jimmy’s acting, but it feeds into a loop which has made the character hard to accept as an actual person. His assertion that some of his baseball cards belonged to his dad, delivered with a slight tremor, is a humanizing moment, but it just isn’t enough. Wormald winds up feeling more like a way to push plot and themes than he does a genuine human.

It’s an episode of small ugliness and smaller beauties. The titular cobbler is not just the imaginary fetish Jimmy concocts to free Wormald from suspicion, it’s also a reference to the random nature of the lives we build ourselves. We don’t know what we need, we don’t know who we need it from, and we don’t know how to take it when it’s given. So we take what comes, jam things together, and hope it works until we’re sure it doesn’t. Down that path lies Chuck, alone in his lightless house, and Jimmy’s now fiscally needless immersion in criminal enterprise at the cost of his relationship with Kim. “The world is a rich tapestry, my friends,” Jimmy tells the cops he’s flim-flamming. “And trust me on this. You don’t want to see it.”

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