It’s endlessly entertaining watching the montage — an old-fashioned, familiar, nearly-cliched storytelling device — and the cold open — a sort of newfangled, disorienting, “edgy” storytelling device — used to such loving and sincere effect throughout Better Call Saul. Both were hallmarks of Breaking Bad, too, from the “Crystal Blue Persuasion” cooking montage to the pesky little housefly of that third season episode. But here in Saul they’re more frequent and often more ambitious, and in “Fifi” there were multiple examples to this point.
Before we dive into those devices it’s worth noting that this is the home stretch of Saul‘s second season, and the arc has become superbly focused and compelling in ways that the earliest episodes of Season 2 (“Switch” and “Cobbler” in particular) hinted at ever-so-subtly. For a show about a guy who wears orange suits and wails on the bagpipes at the office, for a show built on flashy devices like the montage and the cold open, for a show peopled by characters as bombastic and iconic as any of the Salamancas…if the writing were equally outlandish we’d have an entirely different show. Instead, the character arcs intersect with intricacy and propel forward in subtle ways, lending no small degree of unease to the thematic undercurrent.
That’s all stuff one feasts on after diving beneath the surface of “Fifi” — but damn, that surface level stuff is still flat-out impressive. The montage comes in one of Jimmy’s new schemes, this time concocted to influence the Mesa Verde case being ping-ponged between HHM and Kim Wexler, and the scheme itself is right at home in Jimmy’s wheelhouse. That wheelhouse is full of “professional cons” (as in “cons pulled for his legal profession”) that could either be said to be undoubtedly noble or undoubtedly despicable. In this case he’s helping Kim retain a client that’s rightfully hers, a client that HHM wouldn’t even be aware of if it weren’t for Kim. Noble! But he’s doctoring the addresses on an entire box of legal documentation behind his bedridden brother’s back. Despicable!
As Den of Geek acknowledges, the aforementioned undercurrent in “Fifi” swirls around four characters: Jimmy, Chuck, Kim and Howard. Howard, about whom we know the least, surprises in his genuine reception of Kim’s resignation. He simply calls it like it is: “a smart move.” In “Rebecca” it was hard to imagine that he could be any more of a jerk as he continuously suppressed Kim’s efforts within the firm; still, we all thought he was a complete jerk for the majority of last season before “Pimento” happened. And speaking of Chuck, we see again in “Fifi” that Chuck’s health continues to be fueled by the creation and placement of obstacles in the path of his brother Jimmy. In “Cobbler” he shows up at the electrically-charged offices of HHM despite the immense pain it causes him just so he can be present to see his brother fail. Here in “Fifi”, he’s more determined than ever: “The lights stay on…I will make it through.”
But back to the surface, to the very opening of the episode, where one of the coolest TV tracking shots since True Detective‘s “Who Goes There” is playing out as a part of the cold open. We get an entire story here in camerawork and imagery — no dialogue — as a Regalo Helado truck driver is revealed (to us) to be a smuggler for the Salamancas. As with the best cold opens, the overwhelming feeling of having missed something important persists for the majority of the sequence. What the heck are we watching? How does this possibly relate to Jimmy McGill? It’s a long thread to follow, but eventually we see the relationship. Eventually it clicks. This happens again in a sort of in-episode cold open (“cold middle”, I suppose) as Jimmy wheels a wheezing veteran out to an airfield to see a historic bomber. What the heck are we watching? How does this possibly…oh!
Come to think of it, both the montage and the cold open are heightened in this context by the choice of music. Both instances feature a building, toe-tapping number that’s simultaneously joyous and sinister. That’s a perfect fit: we’re having a blast swooping around the drug route of the Salamancas, but this is also the Mexican cartel we’re dealing with here. We’re smirking at Jimmy’s Frank Abagnale-esque ingenuity, but we’re also wincing at the coming consequences.
With episodes like “Fifi” it’s almost tempting to disregard the higher-level engagement with the story of Better Call Saul in favor of letting the verve and brilliance of the actual storytelling wash over you. That’s not possible, of course, because that telling isn’t just limited to the surface. The devices themselves suck you into the moment, sure, but they inform the larger story at the same time, and with two episodes remaining in the second season it’s just a matter of which motivations will be brought to bear.