With its clipped montages set to rock music, its stark Mojave Desert landscapes and its sizzling close-ups, few shows on television have ever looked as bold or beautiful as Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul has called upon Arthur Albert, who photographed two of that series’ final episodes, to do prime cinematography duties here. It also helps that the show’s first two hours are helmed by two of Breaking Bad’s most esteemed directors, creator Vince Gilligan and, with tonight’s episode, producer Michelle MacLaren.
The former series’ sharp visual sense returns in style during the second premiere hour, “Mijo.” The deep staging in sequences with Tuco and his grandmother, the harsh natural lighting of sandy desert patches during a similarly heated conversation between Tuco and Jimmy, and that sleek courtroom montage near the episode’s climax are nods to its predecessor’s look and feel. The familiar style makes sense, as both Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad operate in the same sordid Albuquerque underworld, with several of the same players.
Those visual similarities also appear right at the episode’s start, with a disorienting open onto bloody reds. We slowly come to the realization that we are watching someone slice and dice peppers, and the knife’s wielder turns out to be Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz, reprising his Breaking Bad role). The way he swipes the peppers off of the cutting board with such sharp, all-consuming power is a subtle nod to his encompassing control outside of his grandma’s home. From the flashy cutting, we move to Tuco’s disgruntled appearance as he tries to talk with the con artist twins from “Uno,” who are trying to wrestle some money out of his grandmother’s pocket. The mop-headed siblings clearly knocked on the wrong door.
Tuco knocks out the twins and then arms himself as Jimmy comes knocking at the door. Both Tuco and Jimmy have not yet earned the power they will soon covet, and so their conversation has as much quirk as menace. (Tuco’s grandma interrupting their heated talk to give her grandson advice about how to clean the “salsa spill” on the carpet adds a touch of comic relief.) Jimmy demands to know what happened to the twins, and Tuco wants to know why the twins interrupted his day with their tomfoolery.
Before the attorney can explain, both Jimmy and the twins are tossed down into the desert dirt, tied up and begging for their lives. Tuco stands powerfully above a kneeling Jimmy, with his second-in-command Nacho (Orphan Black’s Michael Mando) also trying to rein in his master’s grisly impulses. Stuck in a life-or-death situation, Jimmy makes a plea – although he has not yet finessed his suave negotiating skills.
Unlike a sequence from late Breaking Bad, the standoff in the Mojave runs for almost the entire length between commercial breaks. Whereas Walt knew how to yield his power over his opponents to get quick results, Jimmy is indecisive and sometimes grasps for straws with his deals. His words only come naturally when Tuco pulls out a pair of pliers, threatening to shear the lawyer’s fingers off.