[Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Call Saul” Season 5, Episode 2, “50% Off.”]
Buying time has always been part of the fabric of “Better Call Saul.” Apprehended felons, contentious siblings, pleading attorneys: all of them are just trying to wring what time they can for themselves or the people they’re working for.
A fifth of the way into Season 5, it’s not that the show is necessarily doing the same thing, but as was evident from the season premiere, wrestling with the impending conclusion of the show’s handful of individual arcs is going to mean a week-by-week balance of shuttling certain characters to their fixed endpoints and drawing out the drama of seeing how/when/why others won’t be having a future in Albuquerque.
For the second straight episode, Kim is made to suffer each of Jimmy’s successive steps into Saul-land. Their early morning, getting-ready conversation (marred by Jimmy preparing to wear an outfit made only of Joker colors — never a great sign) has all the hallmarks of an on-the-outs couple. They’re ones we’ve seen in this dynamic before: the hint of staying late at work to avoid movie night, the noncommittal single-syllable sentences.
It’s that impulsive trip to a nearby open house that once again adds to Jimmy and Kim’s extensive roleplay list. Jimmy’s optimism gets 95% of the way to reeling her back into his good graces. Yet again, as with many other areas of his life, one of Jimmy’s primary abilities is to soften the blow of disappointment with the promise of advancement. This mea culpa/carpe diem combo leads to some flirty shower antics (and a look of thorough disapproval from the realtor that could laser through that quartz countertop), but still only enough to elicit from Kim a “…maybe someday.”
In case any viewer was wondering what might be giving Kim pause, the episode-opening deluge of criminal (and otherwise dumb) activity brought on by Jimmy’s half-off sale exists as a reminder. Whenever “Better Call Saul” tries to get into the psyche of potential Saul Goodman clients, those off-kilter sequences are usually tempered by some sobering bit of consequence. Maybe the hammer’s yet to drop in coming episodes, but without any kind of tempering force to bounce off of, it stands as a wispy diversion to offset the looming darkness.
That opening salvo of trashcan misuse and lawn gnome theft seems especially unnecessary given the way that the drainpipe gag comes to a head. With the blame falling on Krazy-8 — on the verge of being sent away to prep for his eventual death at the hands of a certain high school chemistry teacher — following these two lunkhead thrill-seekers just feels like a bit of New Mexico territory the show has covered more efficiently and with more care in the past.
Another sequence that slightly tweaks a “Better Call Saul” convention is Jimmy’s busy few minutes at the courthouse, consulting prosecutors and setting up plea deals as he bounces from one person to the next. That’s a show of character-based efficiency that the series usually keeps to a montage, quickly cutting together intros and handshakes in a speedier, choppier way. Seeing it all in the view of a single tracking shot, gliding through the courthouse, is a nice temporal and spatial changeup. As a way to further the Saul transformation, it shows how comfortable he already is playing the role of volume-representation huckster.
As a way to differentiate itself from other shows that take place in the bustling hallways, it’s less so. What director Norberto Barba and writer Alison Tatlock find as a more effective breakthrough is Jimmy’s elevator gambit toward the end. Not fooling anyone for a second that the stalled lift was anything other than a well-timed bit, Jimmy still finds a way to break through and pare down his caseload as he and the assistant DA are stuck between floors.
Like Kim, Suzanne can see right through his angles. What continues to make Bob Odenkirk such an effective anchor to “Better Call Saul” is that you believe Jimmy is charming and diligent enough to overcome even the most hardened critics. He can appeal to their unspoken wants, however rehearsed his preamble may seem. (After all, he’s a good salesman.)
His methods for getting to a mutually beneficial endpoint stand in stark contrast to Gus’, who opts to force Nacho into even deeper Salamanca cover by threatening his father. “Better Call Saul” has always excelled at a specific kind of restraint. Like watching Nacho hurtle over apartment buildings from afar, keeping things from his perspective as Gus threatens him through the rearview mirror is another way of underlining how important Nacho’s impossible journey is to the health of Season 5.
Lalo and Mike’s respective threads lack the bite that each seem to demand at this point in their stories. The ongoing conferences with Hector continue to establish Lalo’s placement within the Salamanca tapestry, but showing him bluff his underlings out of a hold ‘em pot and pop snacks behind the wheel mere feet away from the raided stash house feel like shortcuts from a different show. The same goes for Mike’s horrifically fated grandfather-granddaughter day. From teaching multiplication by football scores to building a staircase to snapping at the mention of his dead son, all feel like too simple an in-scene set-spike maneuver (to mix a sports metaphor).
As written, Mike is a character who, at this stage in his life, is most comfortable on the job, whether it’s in a parking lot tollbooth or a state-of-the-art meth superlab construction site. Emphasizing a short temper and an inability to fully connect with the only family he has left is a spiral that’s starting to fold in on itself. Knowing that he will shortly have nothing left but his work has always made Mike one of the trickiest “Better Call Saul” puzzle piece — it will be interesting to see if the show tries to squeeze in a third lane for him before the season is through.
Even with seasons’ worth of groundwork being laid elsewhere — on a show that typically delights in showing its work — “50% Off” seems a bit more mechanical than usual. Had it ended a scene sooner, the housekeeping would have felt empty overall. But then that episode-capper, merging once again the fates of two core players in the world of “Better Call Saul” leaves a tantalizing hint at what that bought time might be used for next.
“Better Call Saul” airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.
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