For a minute there I forgot that Better Call Saul‘s main character was not in fact Mike Ehrmantraut, nor any of the other characters dominating the landscape of “Bali Ha’i”. Jimmy McGill is here, yes, and he’s probably got more time on screen than in the phenomenal preceding episode “Rebecca“. He has a nifty little cold open highlighting the fact that he’s the kind of guy who’s more comfortable in his shitty little office than he is in his cushy new digs. He pulls another barroom short con with Kim, as in “Switch“, and the two have a meaningful make-up session after weeks on the rocks. The end of the episode belongs to Jimmy, too, as he attacks his stupid little cupholder with a tire iron in order to finally make room for his travel mug.
But for what might be the first time since the beginning of the series, the A Storyline felt like the B Storyline and vice versa. Shifting from Mike to Jimmy, frankly, felt like downshifting. Partially this is because of where we are in the second season of Saul, coming off a solid mid-season episode and entering that spate of hours tasked with setting up the final few. Last season we had “Five-O” in this slot, which in fact had a grand total of one scene with the esteemed soon-to-be Mr. Goodman. The rest of that episode was about Mike.
But for that matter: what is the dramatic structure of Saul? Somewhere Gustav Freytag is struggling to squeeze this show into his pyramid, muttering “exposition goes here…but the rising action is way over here…and the denouement…” when suddenly an episode like “Bali Ha’i” comes along. Freytag mourns: where is this going? Undoubtedly an odd thing to have to wonder when we in fact know where this is going (Breaking Bad) and even more odd because Freytag died long before TV existed. Is Breaking Bad the climax? Are those little grayscale scenes from Saul the denouement? Is Freytag immortal, or just a ghost?
As far as Jimmy himself is concerned, the climax in Breaking Bad is very obviously one of tragedy for all involved. No one really wins at the conclusion of that show, and Jimmy’s resigned to a life of fear in that Cinnabon in Omaha. Such is tragic climax: things go from good to bad, the plot unravels beyond the point of control, and hidden weaknesses are revealed. Sometimes a protagonist dies; sometimes a protagonist spends a Sisyphean eternity molding floury dough into little buns. Comedic climax, of course, is more or less the exact opposite: things go from bad to good, the plot comes together, and hidden strengths become instrumental in solving the goofy problems of the preceding story. Sometimes evildoers repent; sometimes lovers get together at long last.
Imagine Better Call Saul being only one or the other come Climax Time, veering into tragedy or into comedy. It’s more than difficult to picture that happening, because Saul has already proved itself adept at straddling that line between being dark- and lighthearted. A hybrid, then, is essentially where we’re heading, a bittersweet ending where Jimmy gets to live the life he wants to live as Saul Goodman but ends up losing things that are important to him in the process.
…mind you, little of that logic crosses one’s mind during “Bali Ha’i” because one is likely too busy drooling over the fact that the Salamanca twins are back in all their seething creepy glory, watching over Mike and his granddaughter like a pair of gargoyles. It’s certainly cool that the most tension-fueled scene in the episode is the one featuring a room full of five men: Mike, Hector Salamanca, the twins, and Nacho. The cool part is that we’ve witnessed the deaths of four of the five on Breaking Bad; Nacho, the only character original to Better Call Saul, is probably done for by the end of the series based solely on his absence from the Tuco-related scenes in the original show. Tell me about another series that can mine tension from a room full of dead guys and I’ll show you a liar.
Ideally, Jimmy gets wrapped up in this “cool kids” storyline…but, then again, maybe it’s an ideal if he doesn’t. It’s pretty difficult to tell where Saul is heading with regards to Jimmy’s storyline, and that’s another impressive feat for a prequel spinoff. We’re barreling towards a predetermined conclusion, but the path is twisting and taking detours we might never have expected. So maybe the fact that it’s blatantly refusing to match up to any traditional dramatic narrative structure can be counted as a strength, and if that’s the case then I’m more than happy to take the scenic route.
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