02nd Mar2016

‘Better Call Saul 2×03: Amarillo’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Feels like something’s up.”

Using your hour of airtime to tell parallel stories with no point of intersection is a risky proposition. Jimmy and Mike may both feel the pull of older, easier ways of moving and surviving in the world, and they’re both muddling through half-assed attempts at turning over a new leaf, but that’s about where the similarities end. The divergence in tone between the two stories is galactic. Jimmy’s low-key power struggles with Chuck, his seeking out of the path of least resistance, and the volatile marriage of his cowardice and his natural showmanship plays like something out of an early season of Mad Men. Mike’s segment of ‘Amarillo,’ by contrast, is tooth-cracking noir, a washed-out story about a man we know is going to do, and die doing, everything he swears he’ll never go back to. The inevitability inherent in Better Call Saul‘s genetic makeup could so easily be a liability, but instead it’s the glue that keeps these two doomed submariners welded together even as their stories hum along without much interplay.

And it’s sure as hell fun to watch. Jimmy bribing his way onto that bus full of Texan seniors headed to Birdie’s kicks off with the most ironical “here’s our hero” shot imaginable as the camera traverses the length of a building-sized mural of the Texas state flag before coming to rest on a nobly loitering Jimmy. He, like the Lone Star state, ascribes to a wildcard go-big-or-go-home philosophy that’s more bluster and spit than actual substance. If the defining emotion of Mike’s story is weariness, then Jimmy’s is certainly discomfort. He’s wriggling right from the get-go when Chuck presses him about his client outreach methods, speaking in half-truths and evasions just like he does when Kim tries to nail down whether or not he’s breaking the law. Every time he gets backed into a corner, the old reflexes emerge and Jimmy sprints straight for the easy option, hauling out his con man self as both a defense mechanism and a set of lock-picks to bust into the shadier parts of the legal world, places like that bus that are just too good to resist.

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That lure works well in both stories. The moments in life in which we’re asked for something are manifold, and coming up with answers is exhausting. How could the average person resist a chance to just make uncertainty go away? If all Mike needs is the pretense that he might not be going out to break legs (or heads) to provide for his granddaughter and his daughter-in-law, if Jimmy can duck responsibility and get his commercial out all the quicker by skipping out on getting his boss’s approval, then why should they hesitate? Mike’s clear-eyed self-destruction is a perfect companion to Jimmy’s avoidant behaviors and slippery delusions. Even after the bombs drop, he’s still talking about how clear the sky is. “Golden boy,” Kim teases him after he fakes a pleasant phone call with his boss, Main. “That’s me,” he answers, forcing a smile.

The episode plays well with mood and color. Jimmy’s scenes at Davis and Main feel almost like an enchanted glen, the low lights and echoing hardwood spaces diffuse and soothing. Mike is, as ever, one of the dead among the living, his watery, world-weary gaze constantly shadowed, his weathered neck and hands moving slowly through the gloom. His silent vigil over his family’s house and his exhausted return to the toll booth the next day makes for a great double feature of pointlessly long stints spent sitting in claustrophobic boxes. Tension only appears when, after a night of total silence, his daughter-in-law insists she heard gunshots. Banks comes alive in the scene, hurrying to reassure her that he believes her with an energy he’s rarely called on to display. It’s his human side that makes Mike such a tragedy, and it’s something we know he’ll never fully untangle from the things he loves even as he plunges into a world of bloodshed and depravity to provide for his granddaughter. The toy he hands her near the episode’s opening is one he’ll use to kill a man just a few years on.

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