Is Better Call Saul's Fan Service Making Its Short Season Too Long?
Tara's not a crackpot. She just thinks Better Call Saul could be spending its time more wisely.
We've all had the experience of watching a TV series with a large ensemble cast that, inevitably, features a few players in whom you personally are less interested than you are in their fellows. Lost, for example, had this problem: even with so many characters disappearing or dying on a fairly regular basis, there were a couple who never cycled out AND never got killed. But enough about Jack: my point here is that you wouldn't think a show like Better Call Saul, with its relatively small canvas, would fall prey to this problem, and yet the amount of time this week's episode, "Off Brand," spends away from Jimmy and Chuck proves that it's possible to spend almost a tenth of a season on setting up stuff that already paid off years ago in a whole other show.
I am not a crackpot. I just think Better Call Saul can be so slavish to its prequel elements that it risks making even its short season too long.
I guess it's possible that there are people who watch Better Call Saul primarily to feel rewarded when you notice a Breaking Bad Easter egg -- as in "Off Brand," when Hector gets the report that Tuco shivved a guy in prison and is going to end up staying in even longer. Hector loses his shit and has to choke down a few pills before being ushered out by his ponytailed henchman. Nacho, whom Hector's just ordered to start using his father's upholstery business as a front for transporting drugs, watches him leave.
Part of what made the villainy of Breaking Bad's most dastardly characters compelling was not knowing what or who was going to kill them. But in this case, we already know not just how Hector ends up dead, but that he will have been incapacitated long before then. On top of that, now Saul's telegraphing how Hector will come to have his stroke, and why? Never mind how much we care, or don't, about Nacho's upstanding father; do we care that much about Nacho?
Also eating up time this week: Gus and Lydia's real estate scouting trip. Is it necessary for us to watch Gus do a walk-through on the laundromat when we...know he ends up buying it? This isn't Meth Lab Hunters. As for our check-in with Mike's daughter-in-law, the fact that I have to call her that kind of says it all since I forget her name between appearances. (It's Stacey.) (I will forget this fact before she returns.)
For me, what has made Better Call Saul more than just a Breaking Bad prequel is its exploration of the relationship between Jimmy and Chuck, and how the conflict between them combined with Jimmy's natural talent for grifting to turn him into Saul Goodman. Those parts of "Off Brand" work well. Jimmy's refusal to join Rebecca in trying to get into Chuck's house after Jimmy's victory at the Bar Association demonstrates his willingness to blow up his relationships with each of them. However, when Kim raises the topic of laying off Francesca since they won't have enough work for her with Jimmy on suspension, Jimmy won't entertain the idea; maybe he can't turn off his caretaking impulses entirely, and without Chuck as their object, they need to be spent elsewhere. Chuck, for his part, appears to have been badly shaken by Jimmy's phone battery gambit; he tests himself by clenching a battery in his fist and later ventures out to the brightly lit downtown to call Dr. Cruz and seek her diagnosis on what might actually be wrong with him. And when Jimmy realizes he prepaid for local TV ad time -- a cost of a few thousand dollars that he can't just eat -- his solution forces Kim, once again, to confront how much sketchiness she's willing to tolerate from him.
Other than the fact that this alias proves to be one Jimmy can't give up, we don't know where any of this stuff is going, which sets it aside from the episode's other storylines. ...Fine, we don't know where things are going with
Casey Stacey either, but then again, do we care? Did this hour-plus of a programming block actually represent more than twenty minutes' worth of engaging show? Should this be something I have to ask about a TV season that's only ten episodes long? Is it sacrilege to criticize the pacing of a show that gets nominated for so many awards? Is my patience this low because Peak TV actually is real and the volume of shows worth watching means I'm less tolerant of any that feel like they're offering a poor return on my investment of time -- and by the same token, if I went back and started watching Breaking Bad from the beginning, would that have middle-of-a-season episodes that feel just as flabby?
I get the impulse to plant the seeds for stories that flowered in Breaking Bad. But a strong show that's calibrated properly should stand as its own product; it certainly should not feel so unbalanced that it makes me feel like I'm watching it wrong. I am not a crackpot.