5.5

Better Call Saul Review: "Marco"

TV Reviews Better Call Saul
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<i>Better Call Saul</i> Review: "Marco"

The first season of Better Call Saul concluded last night, and we finally arrived at the expected point of no return: Jimmy goes bad.

Well, James McGill had already gone bad, of course, seemingly from birth. But the first iteration of Slippin’ Jimmy underwent a surprising reform, from small-time con man to hustling lawyer. He got his degree by night, turned down dirty money, toiled in elder law, and played by the rules. In the end, though, he was trying to join an establishment that even his own brother, who he had cared for through a mental illness, didn’t want to see him contaminate. There was a glass ceiling keeping Jimmy from respectability, but the problem was that he didn’t see it, and at the moment he thought he was soaring, a betrayal by the man he trusted most saw him crack his head hard against that invisible limit. From then, there could be no mistake—the world wasn’t for him.

Or, if it was, he didn’t want to join it anyway. In “Marco,” last night’s episode, the critical moment came when his friend Kim arranged an interview for Jimmy that seemed too good to be true. A respectable firm had a partner-track position, and they liked his chutzpah. It represented a dream for the man who had left his reprobate past behind, but Jimmy couldn’t walk through that door. Instead, in the cathartic moment we’ve waited ten episodes to see, he tells Mike that he’ll never be slowed down by moral qualms again, and drives off into the distance to the tune of “Smoke On the Water.”

Despite the rockin’ conclusion, there was something very bittersweet about this episode. Like most of the first season, there was a digressive element that I didn’t expect. After Chuck’s betrayal, Jimmy reconnects with his old friend Marco (played by Mel Martinez, who also stars as Todd in Last Man on Earth), and the two return to the con game they had left a decade before. A lot of time is given over to their scams—we even learned that a “Chicago Sunroof” simply means shitting in a car—and the sad paths their lives had taken, and it all culminates with Marco’s death (complete with the hokey last words you usually see in old war movies). Jimmy smokes a cigarette in front of a church on an overcast day, and there’s a sense of poignancy as watch the inevitable conclusion of those who devote their lives to small crime. It felt like watching the ambiguous, melancholy end of a ‘70s American New Wave film like Five Easy Pieces—beautiful, if somewhat inexplicable.

However—here’s the rub—it made very little sense in the context of a season finale. There are so many questions that remain unanswered for me, and though I understand that many disagree, I feel as though this entire season was a meandering path to a destination we knew from the start. Fair or not, it’s common knowledge that Jimmy becomes Saul, and I have to ask again: Why did it take so long to get there? If there were unified, moving, hilarious narratives along the way, that would be one thing, but there were not. Along with the excellent episodes (Mike’s origin story, for one), we had to endure boring, pointless jaunts into side alleys that led nowhere. Last night, though it was pleasant to watch, was another. How does it make sense that after seeing the dingy, sad reality of the life he had been living, that Jimmy doesn’t jump at the job offer like a starving man at a sizzling piece of steak? Thematically, his regression to a slightly more respectable Slippin’ Jimmy makes no sense, and it’s another example of how unfocused and random this whole season has felt.

Which isn’t to say that I demand a strict, straight path to the ending. I’m all for diversions, but I need to feel as though there’s a bit of artistry and purpose—like the writers have a vision. Instead, I always had the unsettling sense that Vince Gilligan and his team threw a bunch of ideas to the wall in the hopes that something would stick. Season one was an experiment, and while a few ideas did stick, they were cast aside just as quickly for whatever came next.

Of course, every episode had already been made by the time the premiere aired, so it’s not like they could adjust on the fly. The mistake had already been made. They’ll have a chance to atone in season two, but personally, I no longer consider that season necessary viewing. Better Call Saul is in that gray space for me, where I’ll likely wait to hear what everyone else is saying before I commit any more time. It didn’t help that this finale gave us literally no hint of what’s to come. Coming into last night’s farewell episode, I thought we needed, at the bare minimum, something beyond the obvious “Jimmy’s done playing straight” ending. What would propel us past that point, and create some momentum and anticipation for the future?

As it turns out, not much. We all loved Saul Goodman, but without the drama of Walter White, Bob Odenkirk’s hyper-expressive acting and his largely bland supporting cast didn’t left me cold. Better Call Saul had the ultimate benefit of the doubt, but they didn’t capitalize. To put it kindly, the hard work is unfinished. To put it less kindly, the first season goes down as a minor disappointment. We waited patiently for Jimmy’s moment of truth, but now it’s the show that needs a transformation.

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