‘Better Call Saul’: ‘Alpine Shepherd Boy’ / ‘Five-O’ (TV REVIEW)

“Alpine Shepherd Boy” [rating=6.00]

“Five-O” [rating=9.00]

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more fickle in my lifetime than I did Monday night when I watched the last two episodes of Better Call Saul back to back. It’s kind of unnerving. Back story: The last seven days for me have been an exhibition in all things busy; I’ve been in and out of meetings, conducted interviews, took part in a wedding, blah blah, so on and so forth. Nothing that you care about, I realize. But I say all that to say this: Last week, Better Call Saul wasn’t even on my radar. It wasn’t even on my radar’s radar (and, in hindsight, it seems that I might’ve had the right idea — that episode was rough).

Monday was the first time in a while that I’ve had time to sit down at all, and I chose to spend it watching and then mulling over the past two episodes of Saul. Not my usual watching routine, but enjoyable nonetheless. But now I feel a little at odds with myself. Here’s a quick summary of my thoughts, in case you, like me last week, don’t have much time to spare:

Last week’s episode: a collection of everything I don’t like about this television show.

This week’s episode: an exact representation of everything I love — and knew that I would from the beginning — about the potential Better Call Saul has.

It’s legitimately confusing. I have a number of questions — most of which center around asking why the hell it took us so many episodes to get to something this engaging  — but last night’s “Five-0” was the kind of season-saving episode (not that the show was really in need of saving, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it hadn’t debuted with the kind of fervor I was hoping for) that puts all of those questions to rest. At least for now. After that hour of television, I’m no longer concerned about what it took to get us to where we are now — I’m just happy that we’re here.

Here are my takeaways from Better Call Saul’s fifth and sixth episodes:

Don’t Tase Me, Bro

Something the Albuquerque police department and I have in common: Neither of us is particularly fond of Saul’s brother, Chuck. I think his whole schtick kind of sucks (no offense to anyone who suffers from the same ailment in their own lives; I’m sure it’s awful — I just have trouble taking in seriously in the context of this television show). And it seems like pretty much everyone else in ABQ, save for Saul and Chuck himself, seems to think it’s bullshit too. The police, who bust down Chuck’s door after an unfortunate misunderstanding to question him with their tasers, aren’t buying it, and neither is the questionably-young looking doctor assigned to him when he’s later transported to the local hospital. The entire thing from beginning to end is pretty absurd, and the way it’s been handled so far hasn’t got me anymore convinced that this subplot has much of a purpose.

But this week’s episode changed my opinion of Chuck and his ailment pretty significantly: He’s no longer just an oddball choice for a character or a pretty misguided attempt at getting Saul to appear sympathetic — he is now, to me, a legitimate detriment to the show itself.

Last week, the show was at its best when Saul was doing his lawyer stuff with the myriad of off-color patrons seeking his business: The Boss Hog-type with a living room full of taxidermied animals, Ned Flanders with the unintentionally-suggestive toilet attachment — you know, those people. That was funny. Unfortunately, it was bookended on both sides by silly and melodramatic Chuck scenes.

This week, however, there was no Chuck at all, and that’s when it became crystal clear that the show is better off when he’s not around. Better Call Saul is at its most entertaining when it hones in to focus on the two characters with the most depth — Saul and Mike. When neither of those two are involved, the show stumbles. Last week, it did. This week, it did not.

Better Call Mike

This week’s episode nearly convinced me that it was actually Mike, not Saul, who deserved his own spin-off series. He is captivating. His story is incredible, and Jonathan Banks is an absolute star as Mr. Ehrmantraut. Mike’s past is a dark one, there’s no question — this is something most viewers have known since he was introduced in Breaking Bad. To those of us who are initiated, this week’s episode is exactly what we have been waiting for. Mike doesn’t belong in a toll booth.

But this isn’t just a delight to fans of Breaking Bad. It’s been hinted at, even to new viewers, for weeks now. Mike has mentioned to Saul before that he was once a cop. Then, in last week’s episode, we followed Mike for a few minutes near the end of the episode. First from work to a small diner for a cup of coffee, and then from that diner to his home. There wasn’t much dialogue here, but we got so much characterization. Mike is pretty much alone in the ABQ — he leaves work alone, has coffee alone, and then drives to his home, where he lives alone. But then, as Mike watches TV from his living room, he hears a knock at the door. Suddenly, he has company. It’s familiar company, as it turns out — some cops from his time back in Philadelphia, and they’re here to ask him a few questions. Some informal greetings are exchanged, and then credits roll.

Mike’s development in the past two episodes has been the most exciting part of the show thus far. Even still, I can’t help but wonder why it didn’t happen sooner. Mike spent the greater part of five episodes inside a toll booth, with, at best, two or three lines of dialogue per episode. Elsewhere, we wrestled over a duffle bag full of cash in cringe-worthy comedic fashion and watched as a middle-aged man ran through the suburbs wrapped in a space blanket. You’re telling me that needed to happen first? I’d argue that it didn’t need to happen at all.

Dynamic Duo

Together, Saul and Mike might just be the oddest couple television has seen in a while. (Gilligan is a master with unusual pairings — Walt and Jesse, anyone? — so I’m hoping the is the turn the show takes.) The two unique personalities, when juxtaposed like they were for a few scenes in this week’s episodes, make for entertaining and diverse situations and dialogue. It’s fantastic. The interrogation scene in the precinct was phenomenal — Saul’s sarcasm and wit blended with Mike’s dry stoicism perfectly. It always has — first throughout Breaking Bad, and now in Saul.

But, thus far, Better Call Saul has severely underutilized this dynamic pairing, and it’s beginning to get frustrating. These characters — ones that are established strengths leftover from the wildly successful Breaking Bad — will be the ones to carry the show to whatever successes it ends up reaching. It’s a mistake to spend so much screen time on characters that aren’t nearly so engrossing.

Saul and Mike are not auxiliary characters in this show — they are its strength. We’d all be better off — characters and viewers both — if we saw more of them. Hopefully that’s what we get moving forward. See you next week.

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