16th Mar2016

‘Better Call Saul 2×05: Rebecca’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“It’s like he was born without the gene for it.”

‘Rebecca’ is a slow burn, an episode in which as much attention is paid to the lighting around Chuck as to the scramble faced by Kim and Jimmy in their respective legal purgatories or to Mike’s dawning realization that half measures leave loose ends. The eponymous Rebecca(a charming Ann Cusack) is Chuck’s wife, introduced in the opening flashback and quickly won over by Jimmy’s charms at a dinner which, for Chuck, is next to unendurable. The resentment seething beneath Chuck’s genial exterior appears bone-deep, souring his domestic joy when, after the meal’s end, he attempts to joke around like Jimmy does and sees his own efforts fall flat. Chuck is a man who can’t abide conflict when he feels he’s in the right, whose proposed solution to his wife’s nebulous misunderstanding with a fellow musician is to call the other woman on the carpet and eject her from the orchestra.

The opening shots of Chuck replacing light bulbs in a clean, airy version of the warren we know his home will become is ghostly and melancholic. Its reflection in his early-morning arrival at HHM, psychopomp’s lantern in hand, flickering aura of golden light around him, is an appropriate symbol for an episode in which light is shed on the root of the conflict between the brothers McGill. Chuck’s cautionary tale to Kim about Jimmy’s theft from their father, a years-long process of filching that ended with the sale of the elder McGill’s corner store and, six months later, his death, is a tangled skein of resentment and yearning delivered with Michael McKean’s laudable knack for sounding as though he only wants to edify when in fact he’s writhing in the grasp of old jealousies and grudges. It’s hard not to conjure up another notable Rebecca, the titular phantom of Hitchcock’s thriller, when comparing Chuck’s idolization of his charming and beloved father to his fundamental mistrust of a brother he sees as the dead man’s bad copy. Chuck, after all, is named for their father, but he has the habitual pettiness and pontificating tone of a man who knows he’s not likable.

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McKean and Odenkirk are engrossing to watch together. Jimmy’s overzealous shoe-scraping at Chuck’s doorstep instantly communicates his belief that he’s unclean somehow, that he’s not quite worthy to hobnob with Chuck. Chuck’s manner at dinner is detached without ever straying quite into rudeness, and his need to lean harder into his bougie persona as his discontent grows is wriggingly uncomfortable to watch. He knows he’s hitting a sour note when he turns a brag about his wife into a brag about himself, blustering that Yo-Yo Ma came to their wedding, but he just can’t help himself. It’s the only weapon in his arsenal. The camera positions him as an outsider in his own home, a man perpetually isolated by some unknowable quality within himself even as his little brother, who he knows is guilty of robbing their father and living as a con man, attains an effortless intimacy with his wife. His fumbling attempts to prejudice Rebecca go unnoticed, as do his Carol Burnett signals of distress during dinner. “Comedy gold,” he forces out, his hearty chuckle sounding like a prelude to vomit as he crumbles in the face of Jimmy’s social success.

Jimmy’s antics with his new babysitter, the perky and law-abiding Erin, are funny stuff, and making Bob Odenkirk look frustrated and impotent is never not a good call, but the meat of the episode goes to Kim. Consigned to Document Review, she’s working crippling hours at a mind-numbing job. When the intern bros clock out, Kim takes off her shoes and turns off their rap music to keep scouring the, to us, meaningless papers in front of her. In her spare time she foregoes food, sleep, and pleasure in favor of calling up increasingly tenuous connections in the world of business in a quest to harpoon something big enough to get her back into Hamlin’s good graces. “You don’t save me,” she says when Jimmy suggests a deranged plan to sue HHM, “I save me.” That miserable expanse of work, that grueling sequence of sticky notes and dead-end phone calls, produces a single golden lead, and Seehorn’s shriek of “YES” when she hangs up her phone is so cathartic that it’s hard not to laugh.

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Kim is perpetually lost in wide shots that leave her literally swallowed by the HHM building. The building’s bowels, the literal rock bottom she hits before scoring her big win, are a mechanical nightmare crowned by a huge, rust-spotted sign reading “OUT”. It’s an escape from the underworld that takes her up into the brilliant lobby where, armed with soy lattes and PowerPoint presentations, she snags a mammoth client for the firm. Her triumphant grin and preparations for the work involved, though, are crushed without explanation by an unmoved Howard. “I’ll put Francis on that,” he says. “You’ve got enough on your plate in doc review.” Later, Howard celebrates her victory with Chuck while she continues to toil in the dark. It’s a sting only deepened when Chuck appears in the office after she’s pulled an all-nighter and asks her to make him a coffee.

Rhea Seehorn is focused, earthy, and frustrated. Her performance has always been good, but getting the spotlight in ‘Rebecca’ really gives her an opportunity to open up. Better Call Saul has an outstanding supporting cast, one that can absolutely take the weight of the show’s dramatic stakes while Mike and Jimmy cool off in their respective corners, and ‘Rebecca’ makes brilliant use of their talents. Seehorn and McKean give the episode a terse, angry heart the equal of Banks’s tired noir growl, so much so that when Hector Salamanca, ambulatory and verbal no less, sits down to breakfast with Mike, it almost feels like a letdown that we’re not still following Chuck and Kim. Not to undersell it, though. The tense, short scene between Mark Margolis and Jonathan Banks promises a river of blood to come.

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