Friday, June 21, 2024

Powerful Acting Rules a Transition Episode for Better Call Saul

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I don’t think the acting chops of this cast is any secret. Better Call Saul has arguably the strongest cast of any show on TV. Hardly a week goes by where one of these amazing actors doesn’t have a scene wowing me. This week, though, this week was special. My headline may suggest the acting needed to carry an episode where nothing happened, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. It was just that good all around, with one actor laying down an Emmy moment.

Some other important plot movement happened, too, I suppose. I might need to talk about that as well.

After last week so rightfully focused on Chuck’s suicide and Hector’s stroke, “Breathe” began moving characters past it. Jimmy began the job search. Nacho took the reins of the Salamanca operation, only to have Gus take it from him. Gus also began what will be a long time personally overseeing the care of Hector after his stroke. Howard and Kim settled Chuck’s estate. There was a lot of fertile emotional ground here for these wonderful actors to cultivate.

Boy oh boy did they do just that. And the highlights had to be Rhea Seehorn as Kim and Michael Mando as Nacho.

Seehorn, especially, had THE moment of the episode while representing Jimmy during the estate meeting. The dual effort of her acting and the fantastic writing quickly made Kim Wexler one of the best characters on TV. Despite that, Seehorn has never been nominated for an Emmy. After this episode, it would be a crying shame. And if Better Call Saul has something better than this episode up their sleeves for her, it might be frightening.

One of the most interesting and complicated aspects of Kim’s character is her sheer, stubborn loyalty to the people and things she cares for. It’s one of her most important traits in her law career; it took sheer hopelessness for her to finally leave HHM behind. Her loyalty makes her a fierce representative of her clients, and whatever her personal opinions, she will represent them as if her own life and freedom is at stake. You could see this during Jimmy’s Bar hearing last year. Kim knew Jimmy was wrong and did not like it in the slightest, but she defended him so fiercely you’d think her own law career was at stake.

This same loyalty exists for those she cares about, as evidenced by her relationship with Jimmy. This is a much shadier area for Kim. She fully knows and understands what Jimmy does wrong. She knows about his immorality. Still, she stands by him because she loves him. If she has to willfully blind herself to his actions, she has and will.

The estate hearing mixed her personal and professional loyalty to create a contender for Kim’s strongest scene yet.

Kim not only fiercely defended Jimmy’s interests at the expense of her relationship with Howard Hamlin, she fully adopted his grievances. Her personal and professional loyalty has developed into a genuine dislike of Chuck and HHM over what “they did” to Jimmy. Like Jimmy, she assumes the worst intentions behind Hamlin’s decisions. She assumes Chuck wants to dig at Jimmy from beyond the grave. She vents every frustration she assumes Jimmy is trying to hold back.

Rhea Seehorn took the emotional burden of the scene’s writing and owned it. Acting one side or the other would be easier, but it was the mix between the personal and professional that struck me so hard about Kim’s diatribe towards Hamlin and Chuck. The breaking of the voice, the look on her face, the gestures…it was perfect. Without her performance here, it would be easy to just see Kim as either working as Jimmy’s lawyer or defending him as Jimmy’s girlfriend. Instead she was both the perfect vessel for Jimmy’s anger and her own. Someone give this woman some awards already.

Michael Mando’s Nacho was the other main focus of the episode, and while he didn’t get a moment like Kim’s he did get a lot of strong, understated moments. You could see last week how Nacho is struggling. He both feels guilt over his father and fear about his role in Hector’s stroke. This week, his guilt and fear received the spotlight.

Neither of these are new things for Nacho, either. His character has always struggled with his lot in life and the volatility of his organization. Characters like the Salamancas revel in the way fear and pain gives them power. Nacho does not. We don’t know how Nacho ended up a gangster, but I think we can assume he ended up here out of a lack of opportunities and financial need. Yet he always has this feeling of fear surrounding him. Fear of the volatility of his bosses, fear of his father being roped in, fear of exposure. Now, he fears people finding out what he did to Hector Salamanca.

Which, it turns out, he was right to fear. Gus knew, made his move, and now Nacho belongs to him.

It’s safe to say Gus wants to use Nacho in his continuing campaign of revenge against Hector and the cartel, something we see the ultimate realization of in Breaking Bad. He’ll probably have Nacho continue to cede ground to Gus and hand over significant power from the Salamanca organization and have Nacho assume all the risk in the process, especially with the cartel’s eyes watching. Nacho is one of the few characters we don’t know the fate of, too. There’s a sense of uncertainty and danger surrounding this plotline that we haven’t typically seen with Better Call Saul.

Nacho basically lives on the edge between barely maintained control and full-scale panic. Michael Mando has absolutely perfected his ability to act that shifting edge from moment to moment. Just like Rhea Seehorn’s mastery over Kim’s personal and professional loyalty has made the most of the character, Mando has done the same with Nacho. He has elevated this character and allowed this kind of complex emotional balance to exist in the writing. Every season has seen Nacho creep closer and closer to a lack of control.

When Gus finally pushes him off the edge in the episode’s final moments, it hurts. I’ve seen people compare Nacho to Jesse Pinkman after this episode, and it’s a very fair comparison. I don’t know what eventually happens to Nacho. I just know that I feel awful for him, and I want him to get away from all the immoral, criminal forces destined to ruin his life.

It speaks to the strength of both Seehorn and Mando that I wrote 1,100 words about “Breathe” without even mentioning Bob Odenkirk or Patrick Fabian, who both slayed in this episode. Jimmy’s job interview was prime charismatic Jimmy, the kind of scene you’d have any actor auditioning for this role play out to see if they could carry it. Woe to the customers of any company that successfully hired Jimmy McGill as a salesman. Fabian continued the absolutely incredible job he began last week with Hamlin’s guilt over Chuck’s death. As dynamic as Seehorn was in that scene, Hamlin wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by her.

When the reliably solid work Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito did as Mike and Gus doesn’t stand out in the least, you know you have some special acting on your hands.

The ultimate goal of any movie or television show is to lose your audience in the story. You want that feeling that they’re not watching a story at all, but rather real people experiencing real events. Acting and directing play the biggest role in accomplishing this goal. The strongest writing in the world doesn’t matter if your directors can’t relay the proper motivation to the actors, and/or the actors can’t handle it. And of course this balance goes both ways. The best actors in the world can’t sell terrible writing or directing. See: the award-winning cast of the Star Wars prequel trilogy trying to make sense of George Lucas.

Everyone involved with Better Call Saul has worked hard towards the shared goal of bringing this world and its characters to life. While this episode is no monumental moment of any kind for the show, I think it’s the one that made me recognize how realized its world and characters are. The absolutely incredible cast deserves a lot of the credit for this success. They own their characters in every way, and elevate them.

Bravo to everyone. I can’t wait to see how they blow my mind throughout the remainder of season 4.

Other Thoughts:

  • More callbacks! The doctor examining Hector also operated on Gus in season 4 of Breaking Bad, and one of Gus’s henchmen was a henchman during that same season. The man Jimmy interviewed with was a relative of one of the women Jimmy wrote a will for, as well.
  • Speaking of said interview, Jimmy apparently used one of their copiers to print counterfeit cash back during his Cicero Slippin’ Jimmy days. Nice little moment while they talked about the company.
  • It’s strange to see Lydia so calm and controlled. Every second of her time on Breaking Bad was defined by her paranoia and anxiety.
  • Jimmy’s hair is falling out! I’m looking forward to the awful Saul Goodman combovers.
  • I also need to give some props to the makeup department. They did a tremendous job visually displaying the grieving, haggard appearance of both Rebecca and Hamlin during the estate settling.
  • Gus so rarely gets his own hands dirty, but it’s always brutal and shocking when he does. It also speaks volumes to others when he bothers to commit violence himself. You could see the same impact on Nacho’s face that we saw on everyone when Gus killed Victor on Breaking Bad.

Images Courtesy of AMC

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