Recap Digest: Better Call Saul 2.8, "Fifi"

Apr 05, 2016 by Alex Castle

This week’s virtually Mike-free episode began with a technically breathtaking long shot – I didn’t time it but it was at least four or five minutes – of a popsicle truck getting inspected at the US-Mexico border. It took up a lot of screen time and it didn’t explain much, though we eventually saw that this was some kind of delivery (presumably from Don Eladio and his poolside cartel) to Hector Salamanca, but it was the kind of formally daring filmmaking that made Breaking Bad stand out, and it got this episode off to a strong start.

Cool as it was, it was a small part of Mike’s plotline, which was itself the smallest part of an episode otherwise dominated by Kim’s effort to lure her hard-won client – a bank called Mesa Verde – to join her fledgling firm.

Jimmy has scouted a dentist’s office to be the new shared offices of his and Kim’s “solo but together” private practices, touting its “mirrored layout” and efficient reception area. After a lunch with Paige and Kevin, her friends at Mesa Verde, where she feels she has successfully persuaded them to come with her, Kim is excited and confident and ready to sign; having resisted Jimmy’s urging to try and get a jump on HHM by tendering her notice in writing and talking to Mesa Verde before Howard – who, for his part, is gracious and complimentary when Kim does the deed face-to-face – she’s doubly heartened because not only did she win the account, she did it the right way, with no tricks or underhanded plays. She’s effusive, beaming, ecstatic, but the camera frames her oddly, with lots of empty space behind her, as though someone is sneaking up on her.

When Chuck McGill gets wind that Kim is throwing in her lot with Jimmy, he springs into action (and his Mylar-lined suit) to save the day, smoothly (and not a little passive-aggressively) changing Kevin’s mind and keeping the business for HHM, and effort that ends with his collapse into Howard’s arms the moment Mesa Verde leaves the offices.

News of the collapse reaches Jimmy at an airfield, where he’s brought his two-man student film crew and an elderly former client (“pubic masturbation – total buls–t”) posing as a WWII vet to shoot a new commercial, which I sincerely hope we’ll get to see next week. Informed of Chuck’s breakdown, Jimmy is initially dismissive, but once Kim tells him that Chuck swayed the Mesa Verde business back to HHM, he goes to Chuck’s house and sends Chuck’s paralegal/nurse away.

Seeing the Mesa Verde files in Chuck’s living room – and Chuck a quivering, nonresponsive mess on the couch – Jimmy rifles the files, marks them with Post-It notes (mirroring the way Kim beat the bushes for the business in the first place) and then takes a selection of key documents to a copy shop, where he does a little old-fashioned, pre-Photoshop doctoring, changing addresses and other information.

And here’s where Jimmy’s comment about “mirrored layouts” proves prophetic, as he lays out the doctored and undoctored documents side-by-side, underlining once again the differences between Kim’s by-the-book, rigidly ethical approach and Jimmy’s no-holds-barred, morally flexible way of doing things. Show of hands: anyone think that Kim would approve of what Jimmy’s done here, even if or when it results in HHM losing the business to Kim again? Or does anyone think that maybe, just maybe, this is where Kim breaks bad?

Alan Sepinwall of HitFix marvelsat the episode’s bravura opening:

According to “Fifi” writer Thomas Schnauz, he and the rest of the creative team had Touch of Evil in mind as they set up their own border crossing, and the percussion is extremely reminiscent of the Touch of Evil score. But the idea to actually film it in one take — covering so much ground and moving around so many tight spaces — was all from director Larysa Kondracki. It did a neat job of not only paying homage to Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh making a similar crossing (with an explosion, to boot), but also establishing how thoroughly the border police seemed to do their job in searching the ice cream truck, even though they fail to find the contraband that’s being brought to Hector Salamanca. In that way, it felt like a magician rolling up his sleeves or sliding a hula hoop across the levitating woman as a way to prove there’s no trickery going on, even though we in the audience understand that there’s much more going on than we can see from where we’re looking.

In that way, the opening works not just as a way for Kondracki and Saul to show off, but a reminder of the show’s meticulous nature and incremental pacing. Those were hallmarks of Breaking Bad, too, but that show tended to use them to build up to moments of extreme violence — sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes both. Saul isn’t a show without physical violence — recently, we watched Tuco beat the snot out of Mike, and Mike in turn beat up a couple of Hector’s goons — but its deepest wounds are on the emotional side of things. And a lot of “Fifi” was about incrementally pushing forward the story of Kim and Jimmy coming to work together (sort of) so we can eventually feel devastated when things go badly between them.

And they will go very badly. If there was any doubt of that before, the events of “Fifi” should probably put those to rest.

Donna Bowman of the A.V. Club weighs the McGill brothers’ mutual betrayals against each other:

When he collapses in the lobby after sealing the deal with a handshake, we’re yanked suddenly back into Chuck’s reality, out of the miasmic spell his rhetoric cast over his target. What he did would have been vicious even without the cost he pays with his body; with it, the act takes on the frisson of murder-suicide. And why? The cold open of “Rebecca,” showing Chuck’s social-climbing, classist contempt for his brother, gives us the ugly side of the motive. But there’s another side, represented by the story Chuck tells Kim about Jimmy’s pilfering from the till and ruining his father (a story confirmed, or at least made plausible, by the cold open of “Inflatable”). That’s the defensible part of Chuck’s reasoning. He truly believes Jimmy will always desecrate the holy practice of law, and constitute a danger to his clients (or in this case, the clients of someone who’s made the ill-advised choice to bed down with him). When Chuck thanks Jimmy for staying with him, at the end of a long night of shivering under a space blanket—”if things were reversed, I hope you know I would do the same for you”—he’s asserting that despite appearances, the Mesa Verde fight is really not personal.

Of course Jimmy didn’t stay with him. He saw his chance at revenge, sitting in those boxes full of Mesa Verde documents, and he took it, methodically copying, cutting, and pasting so that every mention of a Scottsdale location now points to the wrong address.

What Jimmy does is actually different from what Chuck does, however reprehensible the latter. Chuck persuades a client, using less sincere tactics but fighting on the same turf as Kim, when she persuaded that same client earlier. Jimmy alters documents to deceive Chuck into working on approvals for the wrong site. His goal is to embarrass and discredit his brother, but he’s also taking revenge on Mesa Verde for their perfidy, and using means that give credence to Chuck’s distrust of his lawyering. It’s a betrayal of another order entirely. And maybe the worst part is that Jimmy takes advantage of Chuck’s incapacitation and then takes credit for staying with him all night. He regards himself as responding in kind to Chuck’s attack, but without consciously making the choice, he’s broken the bond of brotherhood that—as recently as “Amarillo”—compelled him to treat Chuck with humanity. Tonight when Jimmy puts his keys and phone into the mailbox before heading into Chuck’s house, it’s not because he cares about Chuck (after all, Chuck subjected himself to much worse, voluntarily, to screw him over). It’s part of the pretense that’s needed to carry out the con, to separate Chuck from the one thing he loves the most: his professional reputation based on the quality of his work. True, when he walks in, Jimmy doesn’t know how he’ll get his revenge. But he’s seething cold, not hot; he’s not there to have it out with Chuck but to look for a weakness he can exploit. Jimmy is sure that Chuck deserves it, like the assholes whose checks he accepts in bars. But that’s a judgment that, however understandable in the moment, no one should take on themselves. When you aren’t hit-and-running tequila-swilling, Blutoothing douchebags as Viktor with a K, the damage you cause doesn’t get left in the rear-view mirror.

Vulture’s Kenny Herzog points out that the McGill sibling rivalry was not in the initial plan for the series:

It’s amazing to consider that, when Saul began, the producers had no idea Jimmy and Chuck’s relationship would sour. There’s nothing terribly dramatic about a younger, ne'er-do-well brother tending to his hermetic, eccentric older sibling. Their earliest scenes together were helpful in distinguishing Jimmy from Saul, but lacked a coherent dynamic. Now, as we near the end of season two, the McGill brothers' saga is coming into its own. “Fifi” makes its clearest strides yet toward suggesting that Chuck’s supposed electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a perversion of his unresolved anger. And like Howard, when backed into a corner, Chuck instinctively locates his defense mechanism and — knowingly or not — deploys it in tyrannical and controlling ways. Why couldn’t Howard, rather than Kim, have been the solo-practicing idealist? How come Chuck, not Jimmy, has had to be the humorless hard worker? Both Howard and Chuck are lashing out in lieu of time for that “fresh start,” while Jimmy and Kim assess how to begin anew. How much baggage is worth bringing with them from the past?

And Observer’s Sean T. Collins applauds the uniformly strong performances by the show’s cast:

As Kim, Rhea Seehorn too is given her best showcase to date. When she shows up at the dentists’ office Jimmy is hoping to purchase and refurbish into their shared workspace following her Mesa Verde meeting, she seems out of it, even distraught—shortsighted to the left of the frame, boxed in by the graphically intense double rectangles of the office’s dual doors and the inescapable square-panel windows, all of which contrast strongly with the springy spiral of her ponytail. But she’s not upset, she’s overwhelmed with happiness, since she thinks she knocked the meeting out of the park. Watching her transform into an excited kid before our eyes after a season and a half of workaholic reserve and frustrated ambition, running on and on with glee as she brags to her boyfriend and semi-partner about her success, the shortsighting switching from a visual metaphor for isolation to a method of bringing her closer to Jimmy than ever…it’s joyous and touching and, ultimately, heartbreaking, since no good can come of hitching her star to this man’s wagon.

Yet another masterful performance is in the offing as well. Howard comes to Chuck’s house—where, as always, the man is alone in the dark, lit like a damn Dutch Master—hat in hand, begging the senior partner for his help in convincing Mesa Verde to stay. The talk in front of McGill’s double doors to the outside world, the sunlight hitting their profiles as if lighting their edges on fire; they talk through the mirror on the door of Chuck’s closet as he picks out his best, non-tinfoil-lined suit and insists on coming into the office and dealing with the matter directly, lights on, cellphones in hand. An overhead shot shows his car pulling into the circular driveway for the firm. A high-angled view of his cavernous office makes him look small compared to the vast blue edifice his talent once helped construct. The trademark diagonals of the big HHM staircase force him to zig and zag his way through a firm full of lookie-lous, reacting to his presence in the office in the middle of the day with disbelief. Finally, the lighted arches of the conference-room table set the stage for his triumphant sales pitch, a masterpiece of reverse psychology in which he facetiously encourages the bank to go with Kim, since an old man like him is too hopelessly mired in his decades of meticulous study of and experience in banking law to keep up with the new kids. The speech is so clever and funny, and such a breakthrough for a character you’re pulling for to transcend his mental-health issues despite all he’s done to impede our heroes, that Howard says it best: “Chuck, that was amazing.” It really was.

New episodes of Better Call Saul air at 10pm ET Mondays on AMC; recent episodes are available on-demand.

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