A Breakdown of ‘Better Call Saul’: Scams & Salamancas

Better Call Saul, Bob OdenkirkAMC

Two long years after Breaking Bad ended, we’ve finally returned to the meth-filled landscape of New Mexico. Before we actually arrive in the pre-Heisenberg era Albuquerque, we catch up with Saul Goodman in the present, working at a Cinnabon in Nebraska. Shot in black and white, the opening of the highly anticipated series shows Goodman in a subdued, yet still extremely paranoid state. He returns home, fixes a drink, and turns off the weather report (more snow, just like Walter White himself would have heard while he was in hiding) to watch old commercials for his law firm. 

Cut to 2002, where Saul Goodman, going by his real name, Jimmy McGill, is defending three teenagers accused of necrophilia. McGill reasons that this is a simple case of boys being boys, and that technically nobody got hurt. The prosecutor’s response is to simply play the tape the teens filmed themselves, of them sawing off a cadaver’s head before engaging in sex acts with it. This is the sort of defense (and use of the word “technically”) only Saul Goodman would try. Of course, the three teens end up in jail. 

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After posing as his own secretary and engaging in an embarrassing-to-watch altercation with the parking lot attendant (Mike Ehrmantraut!), he tries desperately to convince the Kettlemans, suspected of embezzling $1.6 million, to use him as their legal representative. They’re not entirely convinced, asking to sleep on it, and in a last-ditch effort to sway them, McGill orders a “classy,” expensive-looking-but-cheap flower arrangement for them while driving, only to crash into a skateboarder. The skateboarders are trying to hustle him, and in a very “don’t hustle the hustler” moment, McGill gets rid of them. 

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He then returns to his office, possibly the only workplace sketchier than the one we met him in on Breaking Bad, in the back of a nail salon. He finds a check for $26,000 amidst a pile of overdue bills in his mail, which he promptly rips up. We next see him storming obnoxiously into a real law office, where he insists with the partners to cash out his brother, Chuck, who he’s convinced will not be returning to the firm. After his unsuccessful meeting with the partners, he leaves the building, dejected, only to discover the Kettlemans meeting with the partners. 

Agitated, Jimmy heads to his brother’s, checking his watch and cell phone in the mailbox before walking into the house and grounding himself (his brother believes he has electromagnetic hypersensitivity). He argues with Chuck about the buyout, ultimately losing that argument as well. Chuck then suggests Jimmy changes the name of his practice, to avoid confusion with his law firm.

McGill then tracks down the skateboarding scammers, relaying the story of his days known as Slippin’ Jimmy, where he would slip and fall to get easy money. He convinces them to con Betsy Kettleman, showing them her car and an intersection she’ll drive through at a specific time, to both earn some money for himself and the skaters, but also to screw over the Kettlemans. For the first time all episode, we see that something works for Jimmy, and the car hits the skaters just as planned.

Since nothing ever actually goes as planned for this guy, the car takes off after hitting the skater. They follow the driver to a house, where, instead of Betsy Kettleman exiting the car, it’s an elderly Hispanic woman. Having just talked to Jimmy, they know they can earn more money from her since she’s just committed a felony, and they begin to harass her despite an obvious language barrier. She goes inside to get “mijo.” Mijo is none other than Tuco Salamanca, future enemy of Walt and Jesse, which we learn moments later as Jimmy arrives and Tuco pulls him into the house at gunpoint. 

The next episode shows that Tuco’s distraught abuelita explains to her grandson what happened, while the skateboarders shout over her to Tuco that there would be problems unless they received money. At one point, they refer to Tuco’s dear novella-loving abuelita as a “biznatch,” which is a really catastrophic mistake to make when dealing with a member of the Salamanca family. Tuco calms his grandmother upstairs and insists she watch her television show (loudly) while he deals with the situation.

He handles the situation the way any unhinged person would respond to their grandmother being called a “biznatch” — he bashes their faces in with his grandmother’s cane. His abuelita comes to check on things, only to find Tuco cleaning the carpet, where he spilled some “salsa.” His grandmother, whose main concern is of course the stain setting on her carpet, insists he uses club soda. After assuring her he would and getting her to return to her novella, he makes a call, asking someone to come over with a van. And that’s when Jimmy knocks on the door. 

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McGill convinces Tuco that this was all, more or less, a misunderstanding, and pleas for the skaters to be spared, if they haven’t already been killed. Tuco leads him at gunpoint into the garage, handing James a knife and allowing him to cut them free. As soon as he removes one’s gag, the skater outs McGill’s whole story, leading them all into the desert where so many will one day lose their lives on Breaking Bad

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Once in the desert, Tuco and his men standing over him, James McGill tries to explain that this was all a misunderstanding; he’s a lawyer trying to scam some embezzlers in order to gain their business. Unconvinced, Tuco takes a pair of wirecutters to Jimmy’s fingers until he ultimately lies and tells them he’s an FBI agent. Upon even more interrogation, he reverts back to the truth, explaining that he’s a lawyer, and is finally freed, because it’s not a good idea to get on a lawyer’s bad side in the meth business. 

Once freed, he is about to leave the desert unscathed, but decides to try to save the lives of the skate-scammers since, really, it’s his fault they’re here in the first place. McGill fabricates a story in true Saul style about their hard-working arthritic mother who would be crushed if her sons died. After some more negotiating, Tuco agrees to only break one leg each. 

After then going on a date (in a silent, soundtrack-over-sound scene featuring mostly breadsticks and lipstick-covered straws, the only low point of the two-part premiere), Jimmy returns to his brother’s house without grounding himself or removing his cell phone. When he wakes up, Chuck is covered in a space blanket, and he realizes that Chuck has seen the bill for the skaters’ hospital visit. He assures him that he’s not going back to Slippin’ Jimmy days.

Enter another somewhat-weak montage of his everyday life in the courts as a public defender. Then, we see James in his nail salon office, where he’s visited by his first client to see him there, Nacho, one of Tuco’s “business associates.” Nacho is looking to find the $1.6 million the Kettlemans embezzled, and offers McGill a 10% finders fee for helping him. McGill refuses, but Nacho leaves his number and reminds McGill that if he speaks to anyone about this conversation, he’ll be killed. 

The episodes bring back the glory of the Breaking Bad days without being cheesy or overly nostalgic; there are thrills, laughs, twists, and overall, a strong premise. Saul/Jimmy’s willingness to just about anything to establish himself professionally holds promise, especially since we know he doesn’t work with the most reputable people. The true highlight is by far the return of Tuco Salamanca, all at once terrifying and hilarious, rejoicing in becoming the “Kingbreaker,” cleaning up “salsa” stains, yet also filled with glee as he makes someone’s leg bend the wrong way. 

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